Written by Heather Elvidge
When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752, 11 days vanished. Although this was an essential reform, seasonal customs were thrown into confusion. Should the real New Year’s Eve be January 12?
Today this isn’t just the concern of folklorists. The residents of the Gwaun Valley, near Fishguard, still hold their New Year celebration on January 12.
By this reckoning, the 17th is Twelfth Night, old style. In England this is the last day to wassail your apple trees.
Nowadays the custom is associated with cider-apple areas, yet apple-wassailing used to be found throughout the country. It almost died out in the early years of last century, but it’s so much fun there have been many revivals.
The aim is to drive away anything that might blight the fruit, thereby encouraging a good crop. The wassailers gather after dark around the oldest tree in the orchard, and sing:
Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and we hope that thou wilt bear
For Lord doth know where we shall be come apples another year.
To bloom well and to bear well, so merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to the old apple tree:
Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and hope that thou wilt bear hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls, and a little heap under the stair.
To cheers, pans are bashed and shotguns fired to scare away malign forces. A bucket of mulled cider is produced and some is poured over the tree’s roots. Toast that’s been floating in the cider is placed in the branches, for the birds; this is how we came to “toast” someone with a drink.
Speed the plough
January’s customs recall a time when the next farming cycle was about to begin. In a last fling before work resumed young farm workers toured their parish on Plough Monday, dragging a decorated plough. Known as Plough Jags, Stots, or Bullocks, they entertained by dancing or performing a short play.
Yorkshire householders might answer a knock to find Captain Cauf’s-tail on the doorstep, dressed in a bull’s hide complete with head and tail. He’d come to collect cash. Most people contributed because if they didn’t, his pals might plough a furrow across their path or paddock.
The custom had begun in order to pay for plough lights, candles that were kept burning in church to ensure blessing on the land. After this was abolished during the Reformation the proceeds were spent on merrymaking.
As the proceedings became increasingly riotous, the antics no longer seemed funny. Few Plough Monday customs survived into the 20th century.
At Goathland, on the North York Moors, the traditional longsword dance was revived in 1922. Locals consulted folk song and dance expert Cecil Sharp, who had noted down dances seen in Yorkshire villages before the Great War. He also visited Flamborough, where longsword teams dance on December 26.
Goathland’s Day of Dance is on the Saturday following Plough Monday: this year that’s January 18. Three teams will dance throughout the day, beginning on the Green around 10am.