20-23 DECEMBER – 31 JANUARY
For the ancients, Yule (also called Winter Solstice, Midwinter’s Day, Mother Night or Return of the Sun) marked the shortest day and longest night of the year: a time when the Sun returned after the winter’s cold and darkness. Yule also symbolised the vanquishing of the Holly King, the god of the Waning Year, by the Oak King, the God of the Waxing Year. The colours of the season – red, white and green – are of pagan origin, as is the custom of exchanging gifts. In olden times, people left their lamps burning all night at Midwinter. It was later custom for a single candle to burn in the window on Christmas Eve, lit by the youngest child in the house.
The Druids called the winter solstice Alban Arthan. The Chief Druid cut mistletoe from the sacred oak and gave it a blessing; holly was also considered sacred by the Druids as it was believed that woodland spirits lived in it during winter time. Holly was considered ‘male’ due to its connection with the Green Man, the god of green growth, while ivy was ‘female’ — an ancient symbolism depicted in the old Christmas Carol The Holly And The Ivy. A mistletoe sprig was traditionally placed over a doorway by a woman, connected with Celtic fertility rites conducted at this time so that children would be born in summer, the time of plenty. People decorated their homes with garlands of holly, ivy, bay, yew, rowan, rosemary, wintergreen, pine, fir, and the green branches of the box tree. By Candlemas, all these had to be gathered up and burnt, or hobgoblins would haunt the house.
Celtic Druids venerated evergreen trees as manifestations of deity and as symbols of the universe. To the Celts, these trees were sacred because they did not die from year to year like deciduous trees — they represented the eternal aspect of the Goddess who also never dies. At Yuletide, the Druids adorned their evergreen trees with all the images of the things they wished the waxing year to bring: fruits for a successful harvest, love charms for happiness, nuts for fertility and coins for wealth.
Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove-spiked apples and oranges which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun; the boughs were symbolic of immortality. A sprig of holly was kept near the door all year long as a constant invitation for good fortune to visit the residents. Mistletoe was also hung as decoration. It represented the seed of the Divine, and at Midwinter, the Druids would travel deep into the forest to harvest it.
Families would bring a live tree into the home so the wood spirits would have a place to keep warm during the cold winter months. Bells were hung in the limbs so you could tell when a spirit was present. Food and treats were hung on the branches for the spirits to eat and a five-pointed star (representing the five elements) was placed atop the tree. Although it falls during the darkest time of year, Yuletide was a boisterous, merry solar festival. Everyone focused on celebration, family, feasting, honouring the ancestors, making holy oaths and peace.
Twelfth Night (the evening before Epiphany, also known as Old Christmas Day) marked the traditional 12 Days of Christmas (December 24 – January 5). The coming of Twelfthtide marked the end of Christmas festivities, for this was when the Three Wise Men were believed to have arrived at the stable. Countryfolk nicknamed it Plough Monday, as it was the day on which labourers had to return to the fields. The day was also known as St Distaff’s Day: the day on which women had to return to work with the distaff (another name for a spindle) after the Christmas holiday. In later times it became popular to bake a ‘Kings Cake’ at Twelfthtide containing a pea or bean, and whoever found it in their slice was crowned King or Queen for the day.
THE YULE LOG
The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year. Yule Logs were traditionally lit on the first day of the Winter Solstice and burned throughout the Solstice night for 12 hours (and sometimes as long as 12 days) as a symbol of hope and belief that the sun would return. An old saying goes, “Good luck will come to the home where a fire is kept burning throughout the Christmas season”.
Kindle the Christmas Brand and then
Till Sunneset let it burne;
When quencht then lay it up agen,
Till Christmas next returne.
Part must be kept where with to tend
The Christmas log next yeare;
And weher ’tis safely kept the Fiend,
Can do no mischiefe there.
English lore held that Yule Logs could not be bought; they must be taken from one’s own property or a neighbour’s. Because each type of wood is associated with various magickal and spiritual properties, logs from different types of trees were burned for a variety of reasons. Aspen brought spiritual understanding, while oak symbolised strength and wisdom. A family hoping for a year of prosperity might burn a log of pine, while a couple hoping to be blessed with fertility would drag a bough of birch to their hearth. The log was decorated with seasonal greenery, and the father or master of the house would sprinkle the log with libations of mead, cider, ale, oil or salt and set it alight in the fireplace at dusk on Yule. Once the log was burned in the hearth, the ashes were scattered about the house to protect the family within from witchcraft. A small fragment of the wood would be saved and used to light the next year’s log. The ashes that remained from the sacred Yule Log were scattered over fields to bring fertility, or cast into wells to purify and sweeten the water.
MAKE YOUR OWN POSSET
To add good cheer, posset was traditionally drunk on Christmas Eve and served to visiting carol singers (along with a piece of apple pie or tart) who were invited inside from the snow to warm themselves by the fireplace before continuing on their way. Posset was made of hot milk combined with spices, lemon and sugar; bits of oatcake and bread were added. The posset was taken with a spoon, and lucky indeed was the fortunate youth or maiden who drew out the lucky coin or the wedding ring which had been dropped in the posset-pot!
4 cups milk
4 tablespoons sugar
4 slices toast
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups of ale
Heat the milk, sugar, and toast in a saucepan, but don’t let it boil. Stir the cinnamon and beer together in a large bowl. Discard the toast. Pour the hot milk over the ale and stir. Drink from mugs while warm. Serves 8-10.
Long ago, people in the far north removed wheels from their carts during the depth of winter. They brought these wheels into their homes and decorated them with evergreens and candles… one possible origin of the Advent wreath. An Advent wreath is a circle of evergreens with places for four candles, a potent symbol: the circle with the dot inside has long been a symbol for the sun and is still used that way in astrology. You might place a fifth candle in the center of your Advent wreath, to be lit on the Winter Solstice, to make the symbolism more apparent.
Wreath-Making Day is the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent. Take a walk through your wintry neighborhood, collecting evergreen boughs. Often big windstorms have knocked off branches so you don’t have to cut them, but if you do need to, since you will be using them with spiritual intent, always ask permission of the tree and leave an offering (such as cornmeal) at the base of the tree. A circular styrofoam wreath form makes the perfect base for an Advent wreath. Hollow out cavities just the width of standard candles and cover the styrofoam with tin foil and then with evergreens, bound to the form with wire, ribbon or ivy.
- “If sun shines through the apple trees upon a Christmas Day, When autumn comes they will a load of fruit display.”
- A Christmas pudding should be made with 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and His Disciples. Every member of the family should take turns to stir the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west, in honour of the Wise Men.
- If you take a candle to church this Christmas, don’t bring it home, blow it out and leave it there with the vicar for good luck.
- “On Christmas Eve all animals can speak.” However, it is bad luck to test this superstition!
- “The child born on Christmas Day will have a special fortune.”
- “The nearer the New Moon to Christmas Day, the harder the Winter.”
YULE SIMMERING POT POURRI
You can bring the scents of the Yule season into your home by blending up your own batch of potpourri. Keep it in a Mason jar so it will stay fresh. To use, simply scoop half of mix into a small pot, and cover with a few inches of water. Allow to simmer on low heat on your stove-top, adding water as the potpourri reduces down. You can also use a small potpourri-sized crock pot. If you’re feeling really crafty, make a big batch, divide into several jars, and then tie with a decorative ribbon. Add a note card and give as gifts for your friends at Yule! Blend together the following ingredients in a bowl, then keep in a Mason jar until ready to use.
3 cups dried orange peel
1 cup dried lemon zest
4 cinnamon sticks, snapped into thirds
1/4 cup whole cloves
1/4 cup pine needles
pinch of allspice
10 juniper berries
December 23 is Mistletoe Day, ‘The day of a year and a day’, a day that is between the thirteen lunar months and two days after the Winter Solstice. As suits its character — betwixt and between. As it has no roots in the earth, it is a ‘between places’ plant – a plant of magic, of thinning veils between the worlds, a plant of dawn and dusk. Derived from Misteltan, the Anglo Saxon word for ‘different twigs’, it is also referred to as All-heal, Birdlime Mistletoe, Golden Bough, Devil’s Fuge and Mistel. When Christianity entered Europe and ‘pagan plants’ were banned inside churches, mistletoe was renamed Herbe de la Croix and Lignum Crucis. Mistletoe forms a large ball with white berries that last all winter long, and can only clearly seen in winter when the host trees are bare — apparently appearing from nowhere like a magical sun. In olden times, it was considered a cure and panacea for every ill; the Druids used it for everything from reversing poisons to aphrodisiacs.
In Druid tradition, mistletoe was cut to celebrate Winter Solstice or Yule from the tree by a Druid priest, amongst much ceremony, on the sixth night of the new moon before the solstice. He cut it using a sickle made of gold, and the plant was forbidden to touch the earth, so was caught below the tree in a white cloth. On Yule night, it was paraded and blessed, and distributed to all the sun worshippers at dusk or dawn on the 21st, when the sun rises. There are two folk beliefs concerning how to dispose of it once placed inside your house; one insists that the mistloetoe must be burned on Twelfth Night, while the other says to leave your mistletoe hanging all year, preferably near the hearth, until the following Mistletoe Day when you bring in the new. You could honour Mistletoe Day with a cup of Mistletoe Tea. Steep a tablespoon of dried mistletoe leaf (available in organic herbal shops) in tepid water for several hours or overnight, then strain it and heat up the infusion.
Wassaile the trees that they may beare
You many a plum and many a pear
For more or less fruits they will bring
As you do give them wassailing…
In Old England, New Year started with a custom called ‘first footing’, which was supposed to bring good luck to people for the coming year. As soon as midnight had passed and January 1st had begun, people used to wait behind their doors for a dark-haired person to arrive. The visitor carried a piece of coal, some bread, some money and some greenery. These were all for good luck — the coal to make sure that the house would always be warm, the bread to make sure everyone in the house would have enough food to eat, money so that they would have enough money, and the greenery to make sure that they had a long life. The visitor would then take a pan of dust or ashes out of the house with him, thus signifying the departure of the old year.
It was also common on New Year’s for wassailers to travel from door to door, singing and drinking to the health of their neighbors. The concept harkened back to pre-Christian fertility rites, when villagers travelled through their fields and orchards in the middle of winter, singing and shouting to drive away any spirits that might inhibit the growth of future crops. As part of this, they poured wine and cider on the ground to encourage fertility in the crops. Eventually, this evolved into the idea of Christmas carolling.
Yuling or apple-howling was an old custom held on January 17. The idea is to protect the trees from evil spirits and to make sure they produce a plentiful crop in the coming season. The best or oldest tree was chosen to represent them all, and was known as the Apple Tree Man and feted as a guardian of the orchard. Cider was poured on the roots, pieces of toast or cake soaked in cider were placed in the fork of the tree or hung from the branches for the robins (spirits of the trees). The tips of the lower branches were drawn down and dipped into a bucket of cider and the tree was toasted with cider and songs. Then the trees were rapped and a huge din was made to drive away evil spirits and wake the sleeping trees. Buckets were beaten and shot guns fired through the top-most branches. Many believed that if the trees weren’t wassailed then there would be no apples.
The Wassail Song (traditional English)
Here we come a-wassailing
among the leaves so green.
Here we come a-wand’ring
so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
and to all your wassail, too,
may the gods bless you, and send you
a Happy New Year,
the gods send you a Happy New Year.
Traditional ‘wassail’ is a hot beverage made from ale, wine, and/or cider with fruits and spices added. It was used at New Year’s, or for “yuling” — given as an offering to apple trees in thanks and for their continued fruitfulness. Pieces of toast were floated in the wassail bowl, then speared on twigs of the tree, and libations poured over the roots. Villagers beat tin pots and lids together loudly to awaken the tree spirit from her slumber for the coming year. Here is a 17th Century recipe for a ‘Wassail Cup’:
LAMBS’ WOOL RECIPE
Lamb’s wool was also traditionally drunk on wassail nights, and used to toast the land or bless homes. It is made with either hot ale or cider and roasted apples. The drink was also present at feasts in Tudor England. It is called lamb’s wool due to the light colour and frothy appearance of the drink on the surface, or from being served at La mas ubal (The Day of the Apple Fruit) — being pronounced lamasool, it was corrupted to Lamb’s Wool. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1756, says the ‘Wassail’ was “a liquor made of apples, sugar, and ale; a drunken bout; a merry song”. Yet the word wassail derives from the much older, Old English words wæs (þu) hæl which means ‘be healthy’ or ‘be whole’ — both of which meanings survive in the modern English phrase to be ‘hale and hearty’. The recipe given below is from a reference first published in 1648 as a poem by Robert Herrick entitled Twelfe-Night, or King and Queene.
4 eating apples
4 pints of ale or cider
1 tablespoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
pinch of allspice
1 cinnamon stick
1 – 2 tablespoons dark soft brown sugar
Set oven to 400F. Put the apples in a baking dish with a little ale, cider or water and cook for 30 minutes until the apple flesh is “woolly” in texture. Meanwhile heat the ale or cider, spices and sugar to taste in a large pan over a low heat until very hot, but do not allow to boil. Strain into a large serving bowl. Scoop out the apple pulp with a spoon, discarding the core and the pips and pile on the hot ale. Serve hot with a scoop of apple flesh.
ST AGNES EVE
On 20 January, girls and unmarried women who wished to dream of their future husbands would perform certain rituals before going to bed. These included transferring pins one by one from a pincushion to their sleeve whilst reciting the Lord’s Prayer, or abstaining from food and drink all day, walking backwards up the stairs to bed, and eating a portion of ‘dumb cake’ (previously prepared with a group of friends in total silence and often containing an unpleasantly large portion of salt) before lying down to sleep. To dream of your future husband, it is said that at the first appearance of the first new moon of the year you should go out and stand over the spars of a gate or stile and look at the moon saying:
All hail to thee moon, all hail to thee,
I prythee, good moon, reveal to me,
This night who my husband shall be.
Excerpt from Tales of Wych Elm Gate
On Old Twelfth Night flaming torches appeared, scattered throughout the snowy darkness. They came bobbing up the Main Road, around the twisting lane, across the meadow, and through the snow-laced Friendly Woods, approaching Wych Elm Gate from all sides.
“The wassailers are coming! The wassailers are coming!” shouted Bess excitedly, running to every window in the farmhouse to watch them. Her nasty cold had almost disappeared, and her cheeks were glowing healthy pink.
One by one, the neighbours and villagers arrived at the kitchen door, stomping their feet and rubbing their mittened hands. Their laughter and puffs of breath hung in the night air. There was the entire Everdon family from the Dairy, the Penberthys and the Huckles and the Tricketts, Big John and Little John Whittard, Old Jasper and nasty Alby Cook, who had thrown Bess into the water trough, and who she decided to keep well away from. There was also Sam Willcott and his elderly father from the mill. Sam shot an appraising look at Polly, his dark brown eyes sparkling. Everyone carried old pots and pans, lanterns and burning torches. Father lifted his shotgun down from the wall.
“Here, Will,” said Mother, unfolding a piece of muslin where she’d stored the charred remains of the Yule log. “It’s time to place some ashes in the well.” Will went crashing through the coarse, wet snow with the Everdon boys and Alby Cook at his heels, and Bess shuddered. She knew that dropping ashes in wells on Old Twelfth Night was tradition, for it was believed they kept the waters good, but she didn’t fancy having anything to do with the well after her last episode with Petunia.
Father took another handful of cinders from the Yule log’s remains and headed for the orchards, with all the local revellers straggling behind him, whistling and singing and laughing in the bitingly cold darkness. The apple trees glinted in the moonlight, their branches wet and bare, tangled twigs silhouetted against the starry sky. Will had already lit a bonfire in the south-west corner, next to the largest tree in the orchard, an ancient Northern Greening with a crooked trunk and gnarled roots. The wassailers began stamping their feet and banging their tin lids, pots and pans together – cling, clang, smash! – making a most frightful noise. Polly covered her ears, but Sam ran past her, laughing, and pulled her hands away.
“This is why they call it ‘apple howling’ where I grew up,” Mary grinned at Bess, inclining her head at the noisy mob. Indeed, the revellers did sound like a pack of wolves, screeching and banging and howling under the moon. A vole, running across the snow-capped wall leaving a tiny trail of footprints behind her, paused for a moment and stared at the wassailers in disapproval.
“Why do they make such a racket, Mary?” asked Bess.
“To raise the sleeping Tree Spirit, of course,” answered Mary.
“And scare off the demons!” yelled Will, knocking Bess with his elbow as he raced past.
“The only demon around here is you,” retorted Bess, sticking her tongue out at him. She stood by the hot bonfire and watched Father spread ashes around the roots of some of the trees help them bear a good harvest. When he had finished, he stood up and fired his shotgun into the snowy night air. The revellers clapped and cheered, waved their flaming torches, roaring and banging their tin pots. Farmer Trickett blew a cow’s horn, and Horace Huckle beat on a drum.
“Here’s the wassail,” panted Mother, crashing through the coarse snow with Polly, carrying an enormous cauldron of mulled cider between them with roasted apples floating on top. They rested it atop the old stone boundary wall and began ladling the cinnamon brew into mugs.
“Go on,” said Mary, pushing Bess in the back. “Choose a row and get to work!”
Bess followed the others as they ran up and down the orchard aisles in the moonlit snow, sprinkling wassail on the apple trees. Alby Cook flicked hot cider at her and she squealed breathlessly, dodging away from him through the twiggy archways and almost crashing into Sam Willcott.
“Hullo, Bess Asheton!” he said. “I’m not an apple tree. There’s no need to wassail me.”
Bess realised she had splashed mulled cider down the front of Sam’s greatcoat, and stared up at him guiltily. He laughed heartily.
“Never you mind. I’m getting used to your attacks. When I’m not being pushed into blackberries, I’m being showered with boiling cider!”
“Oh, it’s not like that,” said Bess, feeling even worse. “I’m not attacking you at all, Sam! I think you’re wonderful.”
“Do you, now?” asked Sam, brown eyes dancing. “That’s just as well.”
“Why?” asked Bess.
“Oh, well, because…” said Sam, and his eyes found Polly, who was carrying out a large tray of toast from the kitchen. Everyone cheered, and Father enjoined the crowd to form a circle around the beribboned Northern Greening apple tree. He dipped a piece of toast into a bowl of cider and stuck it on a forked twig, then poured the contents of the bowl all around the roots. Finally, he knocked very loudly on the trunk with a willow rod, to wake it up. The revellers launched into rousing song:
Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear.
The Lord does know where we shall be
To be merry another year.
To blow well and to bear well
And so merry let us be;
Let every man drink up his cup
And health to the old apple tree.
Bess was enchanted, looking at her neighbours’ lantern-lit faces as they spoke the ancient blessing together: “ ‘Apples enow, hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls, tallets ole fulls, barn’s floor fulls, little heap under the stairs’.” She could feel winter magic, alive, all around them; she knew that the apple trees and the shining stars and the good spirits were holding their breath and listening. Then Father fired his shotgun once more into the cold branches, loaded only with powder, and shouted: “Three cheers for the old apple tree!”
“Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!” roared the mob, waving their flaming torches.
“Huzza!” wheezed Old Jasper, hurling bits of roasted apple at the trunk.