Yule was as excellent as ever here at Wytchenwood Towers; plenty of mulled wine and of course, our own brewed Sloe gin. I really think the Toadsman out-did himself with this years brew.
The house was decked with holly, ivy and mistletoe which according to our traditional custom, was brought into the house on Yule itself; it brings great misfortune on the household if it is brought indoors before then and we certainly don’t want that! I’d already come close to courting disaster as I bought the Toadsman some new boots for his Yule present and without thinking, I almost put them on the table to wrap them. Just in time I realised what I was about and swung them deftly onto the chair next to the table, barely sweeping the table as they went. Around here it’s believed to be VERY bad luck to put new shoes on a table; it is thought it can even bring about a premature death! I don’t know about that but I’m certainly not going to put it to the test!
Then on New Years day it is all removed and the little sprig of mistletoe that has been kept in a secret place within the house since last years Yule, is burned and replaced by a small sprig from this years harvest. This ensures good luck for the home and family for the coming year.
To make Yule even more magical, we had a new member join the family – Bailey. Bailey is the most marvellous, beautiful and clever Labrador anyone could wish for. He is a yellow Lab aged five and he was in dire need of home at Yule; his family having been victims of this recession and having lost their home. He is settling in wonderfully and is already a much treasured family member.
New Years eve was spent indulging in yet more of the Toadsmans Sloe gin, along with music, singing and merry making. At the stroke of midnight, again according to our family tradition, the Toadsman knocked on the front door. I opened it to him as he stood there dressed in black and holding a burning coal, “Come in Sir” says I. With that he entered the house and went from room to room, carrying the glowing coal and mumbling the necessary incantations to drive out the negative energies of the previous year and encourage in the positive ones of the new year. Through out this, no-one is to speak to him or look at him but as soon as he is finished the back door must be thrown open for him to leave by. Then he comes back into the house by the front door and resumes the festivities as if there’s been no interruption at all.
Still to come, we have Wassailing – a ceremony intended to begin the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and the first fertility festival of the calendar. The word wassail derives from the Old English words wæs (þu) hæl which means variously ‘be healthy’ or ‘be whole’ – both of which meanings survive in the modern English phrase ‘hale and hearty’. Thus this is a traditional ceremony which seeks to start off the first stirrings of life in the land and to help it emerge from winter and to ensure that the next season’s crop of fruit, especially apples and pears, will be bountiful.
The most common date for this custom to take place is the eve of Twelfth Night or Old Christmas Eve, ie 5th January, just at the end of the midwinter period when the Wild Hunt rides and chaos traditionally rules as the otherworldly horde broke through into human realms.
The wassailing ceremony begins just before dark when the wassailing cup (or drink) is prepared. After dark those taking part, process down to the orchard, ceremonially bearing the wassail bowl filled with the prepared alcoholic drink. They also carry large sticks and such items as shotguns, drums, kettles, pans and whistles – anything which can be used to create lots of noise in fact. A troupe of Morris Dancers quite often accompany the wassailers in the procession and to the magic of the night.
The ceremony generally begins with the tree, usually the oldest and most venerable tree in an orchard, being variously serenaded with traditional “wake up” type of chants and rhymes alternating with speeches by the group’s leader in praise of the tree, its fruitfulness in previous years and exhorting it to do even better in the coming year. An example of a cant to the apple tree is: “Health to thee, good apple tree, well to bear pocket fulls, hat fulls, peck fulls, bushel bag fulls!”
The ceremony usually continues with the tree or trees being beaten about the trunk (and any branches within reach) with the sticks. This is believed to begin the process of awakening the tree and starting the sap flowing up the trunk. It is accompanied by much shouting and the making of as much noise as possible, and shotguns are commonly fired up into the branches. Again, this is believed to assist the tree in awakening from its winter sleep as well as frightening away any evil spirits which might be lurking in the branches.
Finally pieces of toasted bread soaked in the prepared drink are thrust up into forks in the branches or hollows in the tree and left there as offerings, whether to the tree or to the robins. The remainder of the drink is generally sloshed around and over the trunk of the tree and also ceremonially drunk by the participants; well you need something to keep the cold out…