Wassail! (refers both to the salute ‘Waes Hail’ and to the drink of wassail, a hot mulled cider traditionally drunk as an integral part of wassailing, an ancient southern English drinking ritual intended to ensure a good apple harvest the following year. The custom is likely to have been brought in or brought together by the Danish-speaking Viking settlers, as the term “wassail” comes from the Old Norse “ves heill”, meaning “be healthy”.
It takes place on the old Twelfth Night (which was 17 January, pre 1752 before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Britain).
On this normally bitterly cold night in early January, groups of people, often with their faces painted and feathers adorning them, make a procession down alleyways and footpaths to fruit trees to have a riotous party and please the tree spirits. At the centre of the affair is the “wassail cup”, a beer or cider cocktail shared by everyone – drinks lovers have numerous coveted recipes for it. There usually a fire, for warmth and light, songs and dancing for fun, community laughter and to keep warm on a frosty night.
Morrismen often have blackened faces, and this has become a widespread tradition in Wassailing The Silurian Border Morrismen say that the “true origins of the blackened face are lost in the mists of time, but are widely believed to be simply a form of disguise, possibly to overcome the oppressive anti-begging laws of the 17th century, to ensure that you were not recognised when begging – and the timeless embarrassment of being a Morris man.
Often Wassailers are dressed up as chimney sweeps or miners, a ploy that originated with agricultural workers trying to disguise themselves from their emloyers when they went out to sing and dance for a few extra pennies, when begging was illegal. It has nothing to do with race, they say. In 2017, MP Sajid Javid, defended the practice when he was Communities Secretary, saying he was “proud” of a group in Alvechurch in his Bromsgrove constituency. “They are as racist as I am”, he tweeted.