Twelve Days

Candles and hollyMy friends who follow me on Facebook will already be familiar with this rant but I want to share it here too. To whit, the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Christmas celebrations seem to begin earlier every year and from at least the beginning of December you can expect to see Christmas decorations and hear Christmas ‘musac’ everywhere. People decorate their homes and gardens earlier and earlier as if trying to score points by being the first, with the result that by the time Christmas actually arrives they are already fed up with them and longing to take them down. Some even do this on Boxing Day, if they can take time off spending yet more money in the ‘Sales’ that they might even have queued up for over night! Others do at least last out until New Year, but as far as many people are concerned Christmas is over, they are back at work and the children will be back at school in a day or two if not already.

On 2nd January this year my husband and I visited our local tip with some junk cleared from our barn. There were people there throwing away their Christmas trees. It saddens me. There are twelve days of Christmas – the first being Christmas Day itself, so twelfth night is the night of 5th January and traditionally decorations stay up until then, not being taken day until 6th January. This is also, in Christian tradition, when the three wise men arrived at the stable – Epiphany. Even in pre-Christian times the celebrations at this time of year lasted for many days welcoming the return of the light with feasting and firelight.

I believe in tradition and I think it is good to honour the old traditions, it is the way I was brought up. When I was little, yes decorations were seen in the shops from around mid-December and yes, we probably visited Santa in his grotto to tell him what we wanted for Christmas, or we wrote our letter and posted it up the chimney (who has those these days – well actually we do, but many don’t) but decorations were not put up in our house until after my older sister and I had gone to bed on Christmas Eve. That way, when we came down on Christmas morning it was wonderfully exciting, it had wow factor.

As we got older we were allowed to help with the decorations and eventually do it all ourselves, but still not until Christmas Eve (i.e. the day before the first day of Christmas). When I had my own home I carried on this tradition although, with so much to do at that time it gradually got slightly earlier, to maybe the weekend before Christmas. As my youngest son’s birthday is 20th December we usually got the decorations up by then, in time for his party and often ‘Santa’ dropped by to give the children their goody bags, but even so they never came down before 6th January, we had our full twelve days of Christmas.

This year I have had a slight problem in that we have been away this weekend in order to attend a family gathering hosted by my brother-in-law and his wife on 6th January, which was great, but I can’t be in two places at once. What was I to do about the decorations? For the first time ever I have taken some down before twelfth night. I took down the outside tree lights (no-one was going to turn them on when it got dark anyway) and those in the porch and hallway, I have also removed the odd piece of tinsel but the bulk have stayed in place, including the indoor tree, and they will have to wait until we get home tomorrow before being packed away for next Christmas – a compromise of sorts!

Meanwhile maybe I will start a campaign to bring back the full twelve days of Christmas – and it starts here!

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Twelfth Night

Twelfth night;
Wise Ones visit
to welcome the new-born
sun.

Waes Hael

Wassail Bowl

Picture courtesy of Google Images

‘Waes Hael’ is an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning ‘good health’. In modern English this has come down to us as ‘Wassail’. Since ancient times groups of people have gone out ‘Wassailing’ on either New Years Eve or Twelfth Night.

By custom wassailing can be divided into two distinct groups. One custom was to go from door to door bringing good wishes to the household and the other custom was to go wassailing in the fields and, especially in the cider producing counties of the West Country, into orchards to bless the trees to ensure a good crop for the coming year.

The wassail itself was originally a drink made from mulled ale, wine or cider blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two. It could contain roasted apples and this gave it the alternative name ‘Lambs Wool’ because the pulp of the apples looked a bit like fleece floating on the drink. Many recipes for wassail, both traditional and more modern, can be found on the internet. The drink was served in a large bowl or goblet made from wood, or sometimes pewter or silver, passed from one person to the next. (Jesus College at Oxford University has a wassail bowl which is covered with silver and can hold 10 gallons!)

At each stop the ‘Wassailers’ would sing special wassail songs or carols and it is from this tradition that we now have carol singers doing the rounds singing Christmas Carols in the days leading up to Christmas. Each area of the country had its own particular wassail carols, several of which have come down to us today. In some areas the tradition only ceased as recently as the 1960’s and this is perhaps why at least two of these songs have become well-known and I learnt them both as a child.

One of these is known as The Gloucestershire Wassail. Here is the first verse:

Wassail, wassail all over the town.
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made of the good maple tree;
with the wassailing bowl we drink unto thee.

There are several different versions to this song but the version I am most familiar with continues with verses wishing good health to various livestock owned by the householder, such as ‘So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek,’ and ‘Here’s health to the ox and to his right eye,’: – you get the gist.

More familiar, and perhaps more suitable for New Years Eve is simply known as The Wassail Song, or ‘Here we come a-wassailing’. For those who are interested the words and music for both of these Wassail Carols are free to download from ChristmasCarolMusic.org. Here you will also find lists of recordings of these songs – including versions from bands such as Blur and Steeleye Span.

Here now is the full version of The Wassail Song as I learnt it, again there are others:

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

We are not daily beggars who beg from door to door,
but we are neighbours’ children whom you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

God bless the master of this house, likewise his mistress too,
and all the little children that around the table go.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

Waes Hael to one and all!

Leaving a Trail

Twelfth Night
swept away in a gale,
leaving behind a trail
of twigs and branches.

Site content copyright of Elizabeth Leaper (Libby).

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