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Wassailing Tradition Returns to Lancaster

Author: 
John Freeman
The Fairfield Association will be hosting a traditional Wassailing event later this month, in the Fairfield Community Orchard at the end of Sunnyside Lane in Lancaster.

Taking place on Saturday 17th January between 3pm and 5pm, this will be the second time in living memory that Lancaster has hosted a Wassailing – the first was last year and was a rip-roaring success with over 100 people in attendance. It follows a year of successful events hosted by the Fairfield Association.

The word wassail derives from the Old English words wæs (þu) hæl which means variously ‘be healthy' or ‘be whole' - both of which meanings survive in the modern English phrase ‘hale and hearty'. Thus this is a traditional ceremony which seeks to start off the first stirrings of life in the land and to help it emerge from winter and to ensure that the next season's crop of fruit, especially apples and pears, will be bountiful.

“Wassailings are traditionally held in the cider making counties of southern England," explains Andrew Brennand, the event’s organizer, "but since Lancaster boasts its own public orchard we thought the time was right to bring the tradition to the North West.

"We were bowled over by how many people attended last year and hope that everyone who came will attend again and tell their friends. With a bit of luck this will become a popular new tradition in Lancaster – it is certainly something to fill those dreary days after Christmas!”

While some wassailing ceremonies take place earlier in the New Year, on the eve of Twelfth Night or Old Christmas Eve (5th January), in some cases the ceremony takes places a little later, on 17th January, Old Twelfth Night, depending on whether the celebrants prefer to follow the old or new calendar. (Old Christmas Eve is just at the end of the midwinter period when legend has it that the Wild Hunt rides and chaos traditionally rules as the otherworldly horde broke through into human realms. I think we've got enough chaos to worry about without encouraging Wild Hunts...).

The Associatiuon has chosen to have their ceremony on Old Twelfth Night, which falls on a Saturday, which means for the first time the event will be held simultaneously with Wassailing events all over the country. There will be a range of activities suitable for both children and adults, starting with a noisy procession at 3.00pm sharp. People are encouraged to bring pots, pans and drums as the procession is intended to scare away any evil spirits who might blight the crop in the year to come. While not many people believe in evil spirits these days, there is some evidence that making a big noise at this time of year actually disrupts the natural cycle of parasites that damage the trees, so you could argue that the content of the centuries old Wassailing ceremony is actually backed by modern science...

Following this there will be a traditional Mummers Play performed by the Stone the Crows Morris side from Leyland. These plays are also traditional and have a heritage going back at least five hundred years. “Some people believe that these plays go all the way back to the time of the Crusades," says Andrww. "Although the texts of all Mummers Plays are quite similar, the version being performed will be an adaptation of the original Lancaster Pace Egging play that originates in this very city.”

Included in the afternoon’s proceedings will be the choosing of an Oak King and Apple Queen to rule for a year, so people are requested to attend in Fancy Dress if they want to be considered for these prestigious roles. The Oak King and Apple Queen will make the traditional offerings of cider to the trees and begin the passing round of a Wassail Bowl.

The event will finish with the performance of traditional four part harmony Wassailing songs around a bonfire. All funds raised will go towards the upkeep of the orchard. There is a suggested donation of £1 per attendee.

Read more about wassailing on the White Dragon web site.
Wassailing Song on Carols.org.uk
• Read about Celtic myth and druids on www.druidry.org
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