Old Twelfth Night – it’s Wassail Time

One of my great pleasures is to hear traditional songs being sung and I know quite a number by heart. A favourite is the old Wassail song sung on Wassail Day. The Cotswolds proved to be one of the last places where these old songs were commonly sung and they were written down for posterity by Cecil Sharp in the early 1900’s.

Here we go a-wassailing, all through the leaves so green, here we go a-wassailing, so early to be seen…”, goes the song and tomorrow, is Wassail Day.

Purists hold wassail on Old Twelfth Night, the 17th January (as against the ‘new’ date of the 6th), which is the date prior to 1752 when the calendar was changed and days ‘lost’. So wassailing will take place as night falls in orchards throughout England. However, with the dwindling number of orchards, the ceremony takes place less and less. The photo below is of a newly planted orchard at daffodil time.

I have never been to a wassail in the Cotswolds but, years ago, when I spent much of my early adult time on Exmoor, I wassailed the orchard attached to a local pub. As darkness fell, we carried flaming torches amongst the trees, drank to their health and placed pieces of toast (photo below) dipped in cider amongst the branches. And we sang the wassail song and many other old songs too. And just as we began to relax, and the cider take hold of us, guns were fired through the branches to scare off bad demons, bringing us back to our senses. That orchard has since been built upon and the tradition there lost.

The blackened faces of morris men, that attend some wassails, are also there to frighten evil spirits, for this has it’s roots in pagan times and has nothing whatsoever to do with race, as is now sometimes thought. PC means that many morris men no longer do this. The ceremony shown on the video below has both morris men and a wassail queen. I don’t recall seeing the morris when I took part, or a young virgin for that matter, but perhaps that is due to too much cider and too many years passing. There is no wassail singing on the video and only a glimpse of morris dancing – the latter I hope to write about, with other local customs, in the future.


If the wassail works there really will be “…apples down in capfuls, buckets, bushels, bags and all…” and, if not, a lot of fun will have been had regardless. And in the final words of the old song, readers, may I “…wish you, send you a healthy new year…”

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Of Holly , Ivy and Mistletoe

As it is the festive season it seems appropriate to look at the traditional greenery that we grow in our garden, or gather from the hedgerows, to decorate our homes at this time of year. And of all them it has to be the holly that offers so much as a garden plant.

The holly is one of those species (relatively few in number) that have separate male and female plants. To have a crop of berries like the ones above it is necessary to have both sexes growing within pollination distance and, of course, it is only the female that will carry berries. In our garden we have a magnificent specimen of England’s wild holly, Ilex aquifolium, but being male, is relatively boring (that isn’t meant to be as sexist as it reads!). It towers above roof height and doesn’t deserve the space it takes other than it provides us with shelter and a place to hang the bird feeders. How much better value it would be if it had been a variegated leaf sort. Fortunately there are lots of berried hollies growing wild in the secret valley for picking.

This holly is Argentea Marginata, a variegated form of our native holly and, being female, carries berries, making it very garden worthy. The occasional stem has pure white leaves. Ilex aquifolium grows naturally throughout the west and south of Europe, North Africa and west Asia. An oddity of holly common names is that many of the male plants have female names, and female plants male, so the variety Silver Queen, for example, is a non-berrying male. Very confusing!

I’m not a great fan of Ivy. There are lots of different leaf shapes and colours but, generally, I think they are rather dull, although, I do admit, they can be useful in dark, dry corners where little else will grow. This wild ivy, Hedera helix, above, growing on a corner of our Cotswold dry stone wall (and it will bring the wall down if we leave it on there much longer), has been transformed, on a cold winter’s morning, by frost which has given the upper leaves an icing sugar edging and highlighted the veins of the lower leaves.

Mistletoe – the plant of lover’s, or at least, of those trying to sneak a kiss from the unsuspecting. In England it grows wild, often on fruit trees in orchards or on poplars and always difficult to reach. Invisible for much of the year, once the tree’s leaves have fallen in the Autumn, there it is hanging in great bunches high, high up.

It is rare to find a plant growing as low as in the photo above and it gives a great opportunity to see how it attaches to the host plant. There are no visible roots: the stems of the mistletoe just grow from the trunk like young branches, easily identified by their dull green (as against brown) bark. Does mistletoe, Viscum album, ever kill the host tree? I have never seen this but I have seen quite sizeable boughs torn off a tree by the weight of the mistletoe bunches and, one assumes, the mistletoe must sap the strength of them. But then, mistletoe does carry green leaves so must produce a certain amount of its own food. Any idea, anyone?

For those not familiar with the tradition, it is custom to hang Mistleoe in the hallway at Christmas and to kiss those that stand beneath it.

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