Jan 052018
 

Today is variously known as Twelfth Night or the Eve of Epiphany. If you count Christmas Day as the 1st day of Christmas (which you should), today is the 12th day. I’ve covered a lot of this ground before in other posts, notably here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/twelfth-night/  Let me recap a little before addressing, specifically, the custom of Apple Wassailing that is attested on, or around, this date as early as the 16th century in the cider producing parts of the west country of England, and has been revived in a few places in recent years. There are no unbroken traditions dating even to the 19th century still being performed.  All wassailing customs now are revivals, with precious little to do with older customs, and always accompanied with the usual blather about them dating back to “pagan” times, which has no support whatsoever in primary documents.

The practice of giving English farm workers and servants 12 days off over what is now the Christmas season dates back to an edict by Alfred the Great (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/kings-of-england/ ). In 877 Alfred decreed that no servant should work for the 12 days following the winter solstice. This was the slack time on farms anyway, and was not really a Christmas tradition, as such, because Christmas was not really a celebration in Alfred’s time. When Christmas became more popular, the 12 days shifted over to Christmas from the solstice. Until the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions in England completely disrupted the annual farm cycle, taking a break from agricultural work in the depths of winter was perfectly natural. There’s no need to drive ploughboys and ploughmen out on to frosty land in late December to turn the soil, given that no planting is going to happen until the ground has warmed a little. There’s time enough for ploughing in January. Give the workers a break.

Even the etymology of “wassail” gets us into murky water. The word “wassail” seems to come from the Anglo-Saxon greeting wæs þu hæl, meaning “be thou hale,” or simply “be well” (which, ironically, is also the meaning of “fare well”). In many European languages the same word is used for “hello” and “goodbye.”  We should not put too much stock in etymology anyway; “goodbye” is a contraction of the old, “God be with ye,” but the etymology has no bearing on the current meaning of “goodbye” (or “farewell”).  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) waes hael is the Middle English (post-Norman) spelling parallel to OE hál wes þú, and was simply a greeting, and not a drinking formula or toast. The OED explicitly rejects the notion that “wassail” or cognates was a drinking formula in the early medieval period in Germanic or Norse lands. However, by the late 12th century, Danish-speaking inhabitants of England had turned “was hail,” and the reply “drink hail,” into a toast, which was apparently widely adopted, although primary sources are sparse. At one time “wassail” was a toast that could be used any time people were drinking, but, at some undefined date, it became associated with Christmas and with Christmas customs.

There are two rather distinct wassailing traditions in England, both at one time associated with Twelfth Night: (1) Taking a wassail bowl of mulled ale or cider from door to door, singing a wassail song, and begging for food and drink. (2) Visiting apple orchards, particularly in cider-producing areas, and performing ceremonies aimed at securing a good crop. Both customs are attested back to the 16th century (but no farther !!!), but each suffered different fates. The first custom blended with Christmas carol singing and is pretty much defunct as a distinct tradition.  The wassail songs are still around, however, and folkies trot them out each year at Christmas:

The apple wassail tradition is a rather different story. It, too, is attested (sparsely) in the 16th century onwards, but had pretty much died out by the late 19th, and was revived in the 20th century without much information to go on concerning traditional practice. In consequence it is surrounded by the usual “ancient pagan origins” claptrap, and all manner of revivalists (especially morris dancers) join in. There was a tradition of morris dancing in the Welsh border counties, which also happen to be cider-producing regions, and these dancers did traditionally perform around Christmas. Just as with the door-to-door wassail customs, these dancers were looking for a hand out in the slack farming season, and hoping for a bit of goodwill from the farm owners who employed them. There is not a single record of morris dancers performing with wassailers prior to the late 20th century revival, where they are now ubiquitous.

Hard-core sentimentalists will tell you that the purpose of the apple orchard wassail traditionally was to awaken the tree spirits and to scare away the evil spirits hanging around to ensure a good harvest in the autumn. It’s a harmless belief, I suppose, and it’s conceivable that some people in some areas held some sort of magical ideas of the sort. But, I doubt that such beliefs were widespread. Modern people are alarmingly apt to project ridiculous superstitious beliefs on people in previous eras, as if they were both simple and stupid (but WE are so much smarter now !!). Save your pathetic narcissism. I guarantee that the vast majority of apple wassailers in history went out to the orchards to drink and have a good time, same as they do now. Nonetheless, you’ll get revival performances such as this one assuring you that the performers are continuing an ancient pagan tradition:

I guess they are having fun. All fine, but you won’t find me at any such events.

There is some evidence that certain customs had a vogue at one point, but it would not be wise to generalize them to all apple wassails in all regions, as amateurs (and even professionals) are wont to do. Apple wassails in the 19th century usually involved a procession from one orchard to the next, sometimes with an accompanying song. The song might also be sung around the apple tree, or a verse recited. For example,

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Perhaps someone in the group might be designated “king” or “queen” of the wassail, whose job it was to place a special object in the branches of the apple tree. I don’t know about this, though. When people make this suggestion, I’m tempted to think they are confusing the king and queen of Epiphany feasts with wassailing customs. Nonetheless it does seem traditional to place objects on or neat the trees. Pieces of toast dipped in mulled ale from a wassail cup, was one such tradition. Placing the toast at the foot of the trees is also attested.

I will idly entertain the speculation, for a moment only, that adorning a tree with toast dipped in ale is one way that “drink a toast” became a common expression for making a special pronouncement and then drinking. It’s possible, but there is zero evidence to support such a speculation. OED is crystal clear that there is no known origin of the phrase, stupid pontifications by Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory, notwithstanding. The show needs smarter writers.

At the end of the activities in a particular orchard there is also evidence that sometimes a designated person fired a shotgun into the branches of the apple trees. The assembled crowd might also bang pots and pans to make a racket. Scaring evil spirits away? Having a good time? You decide.

There’s plenty of recipes for “traditional” wassail recipes online if you want to go in that direction. I never liked mulled beer or cider. When I drank alcohol, if I wanted to drink cider I would go to a cider farm in Somerset or Herefordshire and buy a big jug and drink it – as is – nothing added. If you feel the need at this time of year, go ahead. I won’t be joining you. Last year I gave a recipe for a Twelfth Night cake for today, which is pretty much a no brainer. Twelfth Night parties were always dominated by a special cake.  But we’re talking about wassailing here, and if I’m not going to indulge in a wassail recipe or lambswool or whatever, I’m a bit challenged. So, I came up with wassail chicken (which could be wassail beef if you want) – a sort of coq-au-vin knock off, but using cider instead of red wine, and Christmas spices in place of the usual herbs.  I’ve added a little cognac too for good measure – reminiscent of my drinking days when I made mulled cider drinkable by adding a tot (or three) of brandy. Here’s the general outline, without precise quantities. You can replace the chicken breasts with a good cut of steak (Argentine beef would work well, I am sure). It has to be a cut that is tender and does not need a lot of cooking.

© Tío Juan’s Wassail Chicken

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a heavy skillet over high heat, and when it is melted add 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. When it starts to smoke add boneless chicken breasts and sauté until golden on both sides. As the breasts are cooking add button mushrooms of your choice. I used wild Asian mushrooms, but you can make do with any small mushrooms as long as they are flavorful. When the breasts are nicely seared, add a splash of cognac to the pan, let if flambé, and when the flames are dying down add 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour. Stir the ingredients together so that the oil, butter, and flour form a roux with no lumps or dry spots. Add a bottle (10 fl oz) of good quality cider. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add, to taste, your choice of “Christmas” herbs: allspice, powdered cloves, nutmeg, mace, powdered ginger, and cinnamon. I tend to dump them in, one at a time, starting with allspice (because it is my favorite at Christmas), and then tasting and adding, tasting and adding. I also add a small amount of fresh red chile pepper because I like a little kick. Turn the heat to a simmer and cook the chicken to about 10 to 15 minutes – until it is barely cooked and the sauce has thickened. Serve immediately. You could serve the dish with a baked potato, noodles, rice, or what you will. I accompanied it with braised celery and spinach because I had them on hand.

May 162016
 

whit1

Today is  Whit Monday in Britain and the Commonwealth and Pentecost Monday in other parts of the world. It is a civic rather than a church festival. The Monday after Pentecost is a holiday in Austria, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Catalonia, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, France, Germany, Greece, Grenada, Hungary, Iceland, Ivory Coast, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montserrat, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Switzerland, Togo and Ukraine. In France, it became a work day for many workers from 2005 to 2007. This was to raise extra funds following the government’s lack of preparation for a summertime heat wave, which led to a shortage of proper health care for the elderly. It continues now to be a public holiday in France.

whit5

In Liechtenstein, Whit Monday is an extremely popular holiday akin to Christmas in other countries. Until 1973, Whit Monday was a public holiday in Ireland (also called a bank holiday). It was a bank holiday in the United Kingdom until 1967. It was formally replaced by the fixed Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May in 1971. It was also a public holiday in various former British colonies, especially in the Pacific. It remains a public holiday in some of the countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean. In Sweden, Whit Monday was a public holiday until 2004 when it was replaced by the National Day of Sweden.

Nowadays countries generally dislike having public holidays that are pegged to the date of Easter and, therefore, swing about the calendar so much. Whit Monday can fall anywhere from early May to mid-June. It’s rather early this year and that means that the weather will be unpredictable in Britain. The newer Spring Bank Holiday makes things a little more fixed and predictable, but the weather is still anyone’s guess.

Germany Tradition Sorbs

Whit Monday, though tied to religious festivals, is not especially religious in itself in most parts of the world. In some Germanic Catholic regions it is, but for most people and cultures it’s just an excuse for a holiday. I’m up for that. A random day off work never hurts, especially if it extends the weekend. In England, Whit Monday used to be a day off that could be used for picnics, political rallies, outings and so forth much as Spring Bank Holiday is now. But for me the most important aspect of the day is that it used to be a chance for morris dancers to begin their dance season.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I wrote the definitive history of morris dancing, in large part to dispel so much rubbish talked about its history. So many people want to see it as a “survival” of ancient pre-Christian ritual because they have been drawn in by ludicrous 19th century speculations about its history based on one or two dubious sources. Morris dancing in England cannot be traced further back than the 15th century and the references from that time are sparse and unhelpful. Things get better in the 16th century, but it is the 17th through 19th centuries when the picture gets clearer. When you actually collect together ALL the extant records, as I did over a 30-year period, it is perfectly clear that morris dancing was first a royal entertainment, then got adopted by churches as part of their annual festivities, then got banned during the Reformation, and finally re-emerged during the Restoration, and later, as a rural pastime for fun and to make money.

whit4

People want to peg morris dancing to May Day because they want to believe that it is an old pagan ritual in new guise, but the history shows that it was more common to dance on Whit Monday, not because it was a religious holiday, but because it was a day off for fun. As morris dancing died out at the end of the 19th century, dancing on Whit Monday withered also. But it did survive in the town of Bampton in Oxfordshire, and continues to this day, although shifted to Bank Holiday Monday nowadays.

Festivities in Bampton have grown significantly over the years, but the general course of the day remains the same. The Bampton dancers tour the town during the day, stopping at carefully scheduled sites. Fixed scheduling is necessary because in the 1960s the dancers fissioned into two competing teams who did not want to collide, but both wanted to share the day. Then they were known by the family names of their respective leaders (Woodley and Shergold), and each group had their followers. I was in the Shergold camp. Now there are THREE teams !!!

Bampton dancers on Whit Monday 1979 Photo © Bill Smith 28th May 1979

Photo © Bill Smith 28th May 1979

After the daytime dancing, teams from various parts of the country are invited to dance. I danced there with Oxford University Morris Men in the early 1970s. Once in a while I pop back for a visit, but it is not often, and I have not been there since the 1990s. The cast of characters does not change much. I can’t go this year, but if I attend some time in the future I’m bound to run into old friends. That’s the value of classic calendar customs. Forget the ancient, pagan nonsense. Whit Monday is a day off to have fun, and it was 200 years ago as well.

Whit Monday is not associated with particular foods. The word Whit is an abbreviation of Whitsun, from Whitsunday  and ultimately White Sunday. The general conjecture is that Whitsunday was so called because baptismal candidates and new communicants wore white, and Pentecost has historically been associated with baptism and first communion. Some people, therefore, like to prepare white foods in celebration. Well, I mentioned red foods yesterday for Pentecost, so white foods would be all right, although hardly thrilling.

whit10

We’re talking about rice, pasta, cauliflower, coconut, and so forth. Many foods that are called “white,” such as beans, are not really white, and white foods in general can be bland. Wherever they are staples they are dressed up with a sauce or condiment. You’re not going to find me eating tofu by itself.  Generally speaking, adding “white” to any food turns me off: white bread, white cake, white pepper, white sauce. Ugh. White food even looks unappetizing to me. If you want to make a white meal to celebrate, go ahead, but don’t invite me.

Though it goes against the grain, here’s a recipe for white cake from Bolivia. It is salvaged for me by the generous addition of lemon. Vanilla would be all right too. “Vanilla” is often treated as a synonym for “bland” which is unfair. This comes about because typical commercial vanilla ice-creams are white and tasteless. True vanilla is not white and is not bland.

whit11

Bolivian White Cake

Ingredients

Cake

1 cup flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ cup cornstarch
⅛ tsp salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup white sugar
grated zest of ½ lemon
5 tbsp water

Icing

3 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp lemon extract
3 tbsp melted butter
3 tbsp hot water

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9-inch-square baking pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, cornstarch, and salt. Set aside.

Place the eggs in a separate bowl, making sure that they are thoroughly beaten and frothy. Add the sugar to the eggs slowly and beat vigorously as you go. Using a stand mixer for this step is best. Add the  lemon and water to  the egg mixture and continue to beat well.

If you are using a stand mixer, remove the bowl and fold in the flour mixture, a little at a time. Do not over mix, but make sure the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Use a toothpick to test for doneness. Insert one into the center of the cake after about 20 minutes and see if it comes out clean.  As soon as it does remove the cake from the oven. Let it cool for several minutes and then turn it out on a wire rake to cook completely.

Meanwhile make the icing. Beat all the icing ingredients together in a small bowl.  You can use a stand mixer but do not beat too hard.  The icing needs to be creamy, but not frothy. Spread the icing evenly along the top and sides of the cake. You can chill the cake to allow the icing to harden if you like.