We are Wassailing
“We’ll all have some cake in a minute but the trees will have some first.” Not something you would usually expect to hear a grown woman say, unless that is you are attending a Wassailing ceremony on a cold January night in East Sussex.
Wassailing is an old English custom that blesses the orchard trees to drive out evil spirits and try and ensure a good crop of cider apples at the next harvest, and it is still alive and well in many communities across the south of England. At Middle Farm just outside Lewes, an ancient town a few miles inland between the popular seaside resorts of Brighton and Eastbourne, Morris dancing troupes, bonfire societies and generations of families gather every January to celebrate this pagan rite that has been a part of English custom since as far back as the Norman conquests in 1066, and maybe even further.
For me Morris dancing has always brought to mind friendly-looking men dressed all in white with a few rainbow ribbons thrown in for good measure, and although some of the troupes did have a similar look to this, the night was led by the Hunter’s Moon troupe. Black-painted faces, long black and silver cloaks, top hats with an array of bizarre objects added to them, along with their whoops and yelps when dancing, combined to make an intimidating sight, soon broken however by their welcoming smiles and friendly chat.
In a hall decorated with straw bales, apples and leaves, smelling of hot and spicy cider, Twig told me about how the Morris troupes and bonfire societies are all interlinked. Visiting from the Hastings Bonfire Society, wearing a hat she had decorated specifically for the Wassail, adorned with pheasant feathers, a black feather mask and a cardboard beak, she explained: “The year kicks off with Wassailing and then culminates with Guy Fawkes in November. Everybody travels around going to all the other society’s events, they take their families. It’s all very relaxed with a lot of drinking, dancing and singing going on. Mainly these are events are all very noisy.”
Starting with dancing from the many different Morris troupes, the evening was helped along by the cider, or apple juice for the drivers, local ales and hog roast. The drummers are an important part of the night and when the time came for the procession, the deep booming from their drums reverberated through the night, and down through me from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. Led by the Hunter’s Moon Morris, who lit the way with fire torches, to the beat of the drums everyone made their muddy way to the orchard for the Wassail ceremony.
The festivities continued with another old custom back in the hall, a Mummers’ Play. Four men dressed in masks and an array of colourful strips of fabric performed a short play in which a doctor of dubious credentials revived a man using magical powers. Then it was back to the dancing with a vengeance, the Morris troupes all did another turn before the band started playing and the dancing responsibilities were handed over to the audience. The free flowing cider ensured that the not very complicated clapping and whirling instructions from the stage were not that easy for the merry dancers to follow and as we made our way home, there was a lot of banging, crashing and laughing going on. We can’t wait to go to our next traditional celebration.