Wassailers bring Christmas cheer

Wassailers offer the bowl of spiced ale.
Wassailers offer the bowl of spiced ale.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Music is a potent force in the festive season. Everyone has a favourite song or carol, the one that conjures up the spirit of Christmases past.

Perhaps it’s the processional hymn that opens the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Chapel, when the lone chorister brings calm to a chaotic Christmas Eve. But really, it could be anything. When it comes to Christmas music, sacred and secular have always rubbed along together.

Not-so-silent night

In the past festive music used to come to your door, welcome or not. Carol singers in the last century were often groups of children who kept any money they collected. Today’s carol singers are generally found in supermarkets or shopping malls, collecting money for charity.

Probably the oldest form of musical house visiting was wassailing, which began on Christmas Day and continued throughout the festive period. The wassailers carried a large bowl of warm, spiced ale or cider from which they offered a cup to the household.

The name comes from Old English; waes haeil means, “be healthy”. However, while their traditional wassailing song wished good health and good luck, the singers expected something in return: “We have got a little purse of stretching leather skin, and we want a little money to line it well within.”

In the nineteenth century you might have had a visit from the waits. The original Waits were professional bands employed by city corporations – York had the first, in 1272 – but in 1836 local government reforms swept them away. Most towns had their own band of Waits who kept the night watch and played at civic occasions, so when they were gone people missed them, especially at Christmas.

Soon impromptu bands filled the festive gap with carols and popular tunes. At first, grateful householders gave them drinks or money, but eventually the new “waits” disappeared amid accusations of drunkenness and fights between rival groups.

Derbyshire families faced something a lot scarier. This was the Old Horse, whose costumed pals entertained with a song and a dance: “It is a poor old horse, and he’s knocking at your door, and if you choose to let him in, he’ll please you all I’m sure. Poor old horse, let him in . . .”

Imagine a horse’s skull, decorated with ribbons and bells and sporting glass eyes, fixed on a pole from which is draped a large sheet. Under the sheet there’s a man, operating the skull’s jaw by means of a rope and springs. The Horse’s frisky antics are controlled – not very successfully – by his groom.

Would you open your door to them on a dark night? Well people did, because a visit from the Old Horse brought luck. If you placed a coin between the horse’s snapping teeth, he would offer a wise saying, giving us the phrase “from the horse’s mouth”.

A few revival teams ensure that these eerie visitors still do the rounds. In South Wales the Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare) ventures out during the Twelve Days. In Dorset, the ghastly visitor is a bull named the Ooser. Around Sheffield, it’s a ram called Owd Tup: “Fill up your glass, give us a sup, we’ll come in and show you the Tup.”

Merry Christmas!