Monday, 28 December 2009

Wassail .. and "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Wassail – be hale and healthy – was an important ceremony practised in pagan times where the workers wassailed the various important areas of the lands – the apple orchards in cider producing regions, the byres where the animals were kept, or the coldharbours – the areas so described as being protected from the worst of the winter storms.

The Peasant Wedding, by Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1567 or 1568

The settlements gathered together to sing to the trees, then on to the coldharbour, stables, the byre – this wassailing was believed to bring prosperity and protection from evil – before moving on to their feudal lord for his charitable giving. Their work for the day would need to have been done – the animals being fed a double ration, so if the peasant didn’t quite rise in time, at least the animals would not be too starving!

The Twelve Days of Christmas are the festive days beginning on Christmas Day until the 5th January, the day before the Feast of the Epiphany. This period is also known as Christmastide. The traditions during this twelve day period have changed over the centuries, due to the differing churches, sects, eastern and western Christianity.

Boxing Day here in England (26 December) became so described as the day when gratuities were distributed by the priest, then the apprentices in Industrial Britain approached their masters’ customers for small donations into a box, which continued with the postal workers, the dustmen and errand boys until being phased out after World War II.

The custom of wassailing (old English and German) began in pagan Europe, where the timing of it varies due to the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, and also now has different connotations around the western world. In England some of these old customs still prevail and continue to be practised. The Lord of the Manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill .. often with a song:
Eight Maids a Milking - watercolour by Yvonne Arbor, England

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
A Happy New Year.

The Wassail cup is a hot, spiced punch, associated now-a-days with Christmas, made with cider or wine, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and cinnamon, sometimes honey and vanilla... can’t you just smell it wafting around? Historically wassail drinks were completely different, more likely to be mulled beer or mead (honey wine) – mixed with sugar or honey, available spices and topped with slices of toast as sops – a filling drink for the peasants on a cold wintry night.
French Red-Legged Partridge

The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” originally came from France, while being kept alive through the oral tradition of singing and reciting. Three French versions of the song are known, and if the “partridge in a pear tree” is to be taken literally, then it is likely that the chant came from France, since the red-legged (or French) partridge perches in trees more frequently than the native English common (or grey) partridge.

It is likely it became more popular from the early 1600s, as William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, was probably preceded by a “memories-and-forfeits” game using the cumulative chant of this English Carol: the leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse/s and added another, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with that player paying a forfeit ... such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. This is how the game is recorded in its earliest known printed version, in the children’s book “Mirth without Mischief” (published c1780) while the melody we know today was only written and registered in 1909.

Malvolio courts Olivia, while Maria covers her amusement, in an engraving by
R. Staines after a painting by Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870).

The carol or song has enduring qualities and catchy rhymes, which over time has had religious symbolism attached to each element that we now know so well today; as I had not realised these attributes I thought I would set them out here – courtesy of 'The Twelve Days of Christmas':
the full lyrics and tune are also available at this website:

1 True Love refers to God

2 Turtle Doves refers to the Old and New Testaments

3 French Hens refers to Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues

4 Calling Birds refers to the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings refers to the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace

6 Geese A-laying refers to the six days of creation

7 Swans A-swimming refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments

8 Maids A-milking refers to the eight beatitudes

9 Ladies Dancing refers to the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit

10 Lords A-leaping refers to the ten commandments

11 Pipers Piping refers to the eleven faithful apostles

12 Drummers Drumming refers to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed.

The intricacies of different countries’ symbolisms, traditions and cultures are still evolving around the December and January periods of Advent, St Nicholas, Santa Claus, Christmas Eve and Day, St Stephen and on beyond Epiphany towards Candlemas (2nd February) vary so much, though the links all go back to pagan times, we all remember in our different ways and celebrate this season.
The Bagpiper, by Hendrick ter Brugghen (17th Century, Netherlands

Dear Mr Postman – it’s good to see you back after a few days’ rest; my mother had a lovely time and this year stayed awake and enjoyed herself. I am so pleased I decorated the room – though at one stage she’d said to me “don’t worry” – as she is loving the change.

A merry time to you all as we prepare for the coming of 2010 ...
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Blue Bunny said...

i iz ferst wit my kommint??

I kant wate my jannie to reed this. yoo kno she lieks singing to treees. And menshuns of beers

I sure my jannie wakes up soon to reed this.

yor bloging frend,, BB

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Aye BB .. theyz primo .. hay, hay .. dn't wake her .. herself needs to beautify herzelf .. the trees will last longer than Jannie .. so her singsongs will keep .. spezially with bears to drink too early furze her.

Good - Jannie likz intrstng commints 'nd I AMs sure shshe'll approve ..

Yr bloggy pal - with Hardwick ze dog ..

Giovanna Garcia said...

Hi Hilary,

Happy Holiday! I have not heard about Boxing day since I left Hong Kong. It was very common for us over there.

By the way, Twelve Days of Christmas is my favorite Christmas song.

Thanks for the good memory. :-)
Giovanna Garcia
Imperfect Action is better than No Action

Jan Lundy said...

I am so happy to learn about the 12 days of Christmas! I had no idea. Especially because I am "doing that" for a friend far away who has cancer. I thought the 12 days would be fun because they go into January and I celebrating my sending her a little gift each day. Hope your holidays continue to be joyous and love-filled!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Gio .. yes Boxing Day is a Commonwealth tradition mainly .. and the song is a great 'crowd' or family group song .. fun to sing.

Good memory for Dylan - to hear his Mother singing happily to him! while you remember your times in Hong Kong.

Glad you enjoyed - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jan - oh excellent .. I'm so pleased you can add an extra little story for each day for your friend, at this difficult time.

Letters or small gifts are so important when people are seriously ill .. that connection with an old friend or relative just makes their day - I know 'these letters' dropping through the door for my uncle - just 'kept him alive' - he said as much.

So pleased I can help here - my wishes to you both .. not at all easy - with love
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories