“Twelfth Night”. The name conjures up Shakespeare’s comedic love story of twins, cross-dressing and mistaken identities or the traditional Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Maybe “conjures” is the appropriate word here, for Twelfth Night is when the traditional Wassailing ceremony is performed. According to the pre-Gregorian calendar, this took place on the 17th of January. It has strong links with Britain’s pagan past.
For some, it’s just an excuse to drink strong cider, but for others it’s an opportunity to welcome the near end of year through time-honoured ritual. Traditionally, this ceremony takes place in an apple orchard, the apple representing fertility, spring, new beginnings, etc. Today, Wassailing is still practised in parts of the West Country - Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, and Wiltshire.
I was privileged to attend a Wassailing ceremony last year around this time while visiting a friend who has retired to Wells, a cathedral town near Bath, Bristol and Glastonbury. The middle-class suburban home of our hosts was filled with the smells of good food and hot, spiced cider. Arriving guests were offered a choice of drinks and we chatted with interesting folks from all over the UK. Some had downsized or retired and moved to the West Country from larger cities. Some were professionals who still commuted to Bath or Bristol. Others worked from home or locally as artists, computer programmers, teachers, chefs, etc.
A while later, everyone gathered in the front yard where a tree had been decorated with apples and a “robin”. Our host and hostess appeared dressed as the Wassail King and Queen in masks and a robes. The tree was hung with a piece of bread and cider was poured on the roots as a kind of offering. We recited poetry asking for a good harvest in the coming year. Bad spirits were chased away by firing cap guns into the branches, and by whirling noisemakers and blowing horns. The Wassail bowl, traditionally made of wood and filled with spiced cider was passed around the circle of friends. Finally, the bundle of ash faggots was lit. The embers would be used to light the fire in the coming year. Afterwards, everyone moved indoors to eat. drink, talk and listen to music.
I was struck by a number of things. One, that we were made to feel welcome without prejudice. My friend, another transplanted American, has been accepted into the community through friends in the area. As her friend, I was welcomed, too. I think that I was most surprised at how publicly people practice old rituals.
Britain is officially an Anglican country, but religious tolerance is far more prevalent here than in the US. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Wicca, and Druidry are recognised and openly practised along side the various Judaeo-Christian beliefs. Each year at the summer solstice, Stonehenge, which is normally closed off by ropes, is opened to pagans who celebrate the longest day of the year.
Those who live in the country seem much more connected to the cycles of nature and the abundance of earth. In fact, they seem more connected to each other as well. The Wassailing festival is a lovely way to mark the natural cycles of our calendar, celebrating with friends. Much better than tearing off the pieces of paper labelled January, February, March, etc.