Seasonal festivities in the heart of the countryside – debilitating alcohol, revelry and firearms – what could go wrong !

You may well have noticed that our new and most esteemed colleague Mr Mark Hill posted about ‘wassail’ in the run up to Christmas (link here to his instagram clip for those who wish to indulge). It is, of course, entirely reasonable for Mark to theme his post about the procedure which essentially evolved to become ‘carolling’ and the handing out of festive goodies to those who arrived on your doorstep, as he is the most urbane of urbanites. However, a very short distance from our own centre of operations at The Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells, one can be in the depths of the Kent or Sussex countryside, where events take a distinctly agrarian turn – if not properly towards the dark side, then certainly away from the sodium-lamps of Mark’s brightly lit version of events.

Round these parts – and in the West Country and Hereford & Worcester – apple growing was once a significant industry and, of course, given the relative ease with which orchards could be grown and harvested, also a staple of domestic life. The wellbeing and bounty of the orchards was an important bellwether for the local populace.

Rural communities, however, never took nature’s hoped-for abundance for granted, and whilst maintaining a healthy distance from Mayan human sacrifice and blood ritual, it was often deemed appropriate to make some sort of gesture of gratitude to ‘the spirits’ who had seen fit to allow your crops to prosper. The wassail greeting proffered to visitors, as in Mark’s dialogue, almost certainly has its roots in Norse tradition, brought to our shores by marauding Scandinavian’s in the first millennium, but the bucolic libations intended to placate those inhabiting a more ethereal sphere than just friends and neighbours seem to be a somewhat later German import, first being recorded during the 1500’s.

The purpose of the apple-tree wassail tends to have one of three different objectives; there is one school of thought which suggests that the associated clamour and noise is intended to waken the dormant boggarts and bogles of the trees from their post-harvest slumber so they can get on with their work of ensuring a good harvest. Conversely, the same cacophony amidst the orchards may have been intended to drive away any malevolent wraiths who would seek to ensure that dearth and paucity prevail; then there is the third way – which suggests that cider, toast or other appropriate comestibles should be poured on to or placed around the tree, be it roots, trunk or branches, by way of an ‘offering’ to stand the local folk in good stead with the attendant sprites and spirits.

Whatever the reason, though, the central part of pretty much any convivial gathering under the wassail remit has remained fairly constant wherever it may take place and whatever the underlying purpose may be – and that is the consumption of some kind of alcoholic beverage. Cider, spiced wine, perry, mead, any number of mulled preparations, rough ale, home-brewed spirits – a splendidly inclusive approach to what can be considered appropriate; that said, and while the consumption of any alcohol is not something which we will turn our backs on, it is obviously the vessels from which the celebrants imbibe the requisite libation that hold the most interest for us, in our roll as earnest scholars and antiquarians, and not simply dissolute inebriates mooning about in a field.

Over the years, the niceties of wassail have diversified in both form and intent, transitioning from bawdy agrarian roistering to more formalised indoor functions in Georgian times, observed with great pomp and ceremony, and requiring the use of ornate wassail bowls, serving spoons, ladles, rummers and the like. These same events may ultimately have ended up outdoors, but with something of an air of ‘stately progress’ by the landowning gentry about them, making a somewhat diffident gesture to their tenant farmers and servants, and demanding oblations and obeisance not to the spirits, but to the landowners themselves.

It’s the original meanings which have endured, though, in spite of such impositions and privations. It’s a straightforward enough task to head for your local village pub on Twelfth Night and find some sort of wassail-orientated event taking place. There are still considerable variations on the theme depending on where you might find yourself, with anything from torchlit processions to cider-soaked toast being placed in trees, shotguns being fired up in to the branches or pots and pans being banged together along with morris dancing, drumming sides and general revelry. Again, though, alcohol is almost always consumed with vigour, and the spirits are either driven away, woken from their rest or revered…

It’s not hard to imagine that such alcohol-fuelled carousal was not really the sort of environment where fine glassware would fare particularly well. As a consequence, the majority of the open-air proceedings would have featured more durable vessels, wooden or horn flagons, pewter pots or simply earthenware bowls and beakers – breakages being almost inevitable if proceedings went to plan…

If, however, we were to pull on our finest knee breeches and silk stockings, polish our Hessians and brush down the fine cloth of our cut-away tail coat in order to attend a Georgian wassail feast as a guest of the local gentry, we would more reasonably expect to be confronted with some more seemly and properly ornate tableware.

It should by now be recognised by even the occasional visitor to our pages that glasses were decorated specifically to denote the drink with which they were intended to be used, so what should our cider glasses bear but apples, of course – see the examples shown above from our ‘back catalogue’ – wæs hal to you all – and may your boughs creak and groan under the weight of their bounty come the late autumn !