Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Month: December 2016

Wassailing Traditions

Wassailing has been associated with Yuletide for hundreds of years. The word wassail comes from the Anglo Saxon “waes hael” meaning to be of good health. This old custom took place at the beginning of the New Year when good wishes could be passed between family and friends.

Wassail is an ale which is seasoned with spices and honey and was served in huge bowls made of pewter or silver with perhaps an egg or two. The huge bowl was passed around with the greeting of “wassail” and was often taken to other people’s homes as well. This has now become the tradition of carol singing. The lord of the manor would often shout “waes hael” and the assembled crowd would reply “drinc hael” which means drink and be healthy. He would then give food and drink to them in exchange for their blessings and good will. ” Love and joy come to you and to your wassail too. And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year”.

Apple Tree Wassails are songs that were sung to the health of the apple trees. In some places this tradition took place on Christmas Eve and in others it was on twelfth night ( 6th January or 17th January before the calendar changed in England in 1752). For others, New Year’s Day morning had young boys “Apple Howling”, where they would beat the trees with willow sticks and sing rhymes.

It was tradition to sprinkle wassail ale around the base of the apple trees and to pour it on the roots of the largest and most beautiful tree, after which it was dressed with ribbons or strips of cloth. Pieces of toast soaked in ale were also placed in between the tree’s branches.

The villagers would then gather around the orchard, banging on pots and pans, making a tremendous noise to wake up the spirit of the trees and to frighten away any bad spirits.

Wassail songs were sung or chanted as a blessing to bring a good apple harvest the following autumn. Part of the labourers’ wages would have been paid in ale, so the owner of the orchard needed healthy abundant apple crops to attract good workers.

“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”

In parts of the UK there are still places that practice wassailing, so keep your eyes open for these and join in the fun. If not you could perhaps buy a small fruit tree and adapt this tradition to suit you.

Ivy In European Folklore

Ivy is a climbing vine that attaches itself to stone, brick and other surfaces, including trees. It climbs by way of small tendrils that grow from the vine which can become large as each tendril sends out another branch. It does not take very long for ivy to completely grow up a wall and cover it. Although it is not likely to damage a brick wall, it can become extremely invasive. Ivy leaves are heart shaped and can be green with white or cream accents. Unlike other plants, ivy flowers in the autumn and sets seeds in the spring.

Ivy has a fascinating history full of tradition and folklore and like holly and mistletoe stays green throughout the year. This fact led to the belief that it had magical and protective qualities and was therefore used to decorate homes during the winter months. Ivy has become a symbol of eternal life because it is often found growing on dead or decaying trees, as well as being found growing over headstones in cemeteries. However, at the same time because it is often found in cemeteries it was also viewed as a symbol of death. It used to be said that if ivy was found growing abundantly on a young girl’s grave it meant that she had died of a broken heart.

In other traditions, ivy was a symbol of marriage, fidelity, luck and love. This was perhaps due to its tendency to bind. Brides and grooms in Greece wore crowns of ivy as a symbol of fidelity.

Some versions of the Medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, refer to ivy’s ability to bind. Tristan was a Cornish knight and Isolde was an Irish princess. Tristan went to Ireland to bring her back as a bride for King Mark. However, Tristan and Isolde fell in love before they reached Cornwall after drinking a love potion.

In ancient Rome, ivy was associated with Bacchus also known as Dionysus in Greek mythology, the God of wine and revelry. It was said that a handful of bruised ivy leaves steeped in wine would make it less intoxicating to the drinker, but at the same time more potent! For this reason, taverns used to display an ivy bush over their door as a sign that they were serving the best brew.

The Greeks and Romans held the plant in high esteem as it was seen as a protection against evil and Roman poets were crowned with a wreath of ivy so they could think more clearly. Perhaps it was the Druids who influenced the Romans, as they too wore crowns of ivy for clarity of thought. Virgil, a Roman poet, once spoke of a golden ivy that grew yellow berries. Sadly this ivy is now extinct.

Women carried ivy with them to promote fertility and wands were decorated with ivy or made from ivy wood for use in spells and fertility rites.
Ivy was also used in love divination especially at Samhain, as this following verse shows:
 

Holly In European Folklore

Holly has been traditionally connected to this time of year for thousands of years. Just like mistletoe, its origins can be traced back to northern Europe and was of great importance to our ancestors. Its leaves are dark shiny green with sharp jagged edges and its red berries were associated with blood. Druids wore holly in ceremonial head dress when they went into the forest to gather mistletoe.

Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life and it was believed to have magical powers. In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck, but hanging holly sprigs up in the home was believed to bring good luck and protection. Holly was also thought to protect homes against lightning strikes.

The holly tree is one of the trees that can be found in the Ogham (pronounced oh-am), an ancient script that can be seen on certain standing stones in Ireland and Wales. Our ancestors respected and honoured trees which were often the focal point of celebrations. Similar to runes, the Ogham can be engraved onto wooden sticks and used in divination and magic. In the Ogham the holly symbolises protection, balance and compassion.

The Ogham letter for holly is ‘Tinne’ and this word means fire. Holly has been associated with fire for many hundreds of years and was used in fires that were lit during the Winter Solstice. Charcoal made from holly was seen as extremely potent and smiths used it for making swords. Smiths were seen as almost godlike with their powers of transformation, creating weapons and tools from molten metal. The use of holly during this process made the act even more magical.

Holly was also offered up to the Roman god Saturn during the festival of Saturnalia. It was said that the holly was the sacred plant of this god and was therefore highly valued by the Romans. It was also seen as an extremely symbolic gift to offer a person.

In the north of Britain, young women who wanted to know who their future husbands would be, placed three sprigs of smooth holly leaves wrapped in a cloth tied with nine knots under their pillows at night. They hoped that theywould see him in their dreams.

It was believed that if you wore a sprig of holly then you would be protected from the faeries and a holly wreath on the door would certainly make sure nothing evil passed over the threshold.

In Scotland, it was said that holly was both feminine and masculine. Smooth leaves were feminine and the prickly ones were masculine. The type of leaves that were brought into the home at Yule indicated whether it would be the husband or the wife of the household that governed over the coming year.

Throughout Europe, holly was used to ward off evil spirits and was seen as a protective barrier, especially during the winter months when the Wild Hunt was taking place. So it would be hung over doorways and windows to stop wandering bad spirits from entering the home.

Mistletoe In European Folklore

illustration_viscum_album0Kissing under the mistletoe is an age old Christmas tradition, but have you ever actually asked yourself why we do it? Thinking about it, it all seems very strange, but there is much more to this Yuletide plant than meets the eye.

The mistletoe of northern Europe can definitely be called the original mistletoe. Viscum Album is the mistletoe that can be found in all of our ancient European traditions and legends.

The familiar white berried plant is parasitic and relies on its tree host to survive, taking the tree’s own water and nutrients. Being a parasite, mistletoe can seriously damage the tree, but fortunately this is not a problem if only one or two branches are covered. However, if it does establish itself on every branch, then it is not good news. The tree will not be able to have enough foliage of its own, nor water and nutrients and will eventually die. Thankfully, mistletoe can be managed properly if pruned.

The use of mistletoe in herbal remedies has its roots in prehistory.  According to Pliny the Elder, the Druids of Britain used to harvest mistletoe from their sacred oaks to use in rituals and medicine. It is actually very rare for mistletoe to grow on an oak tree.

A special ceremony would take place a few days after the Winter Solstice once the Druids had prepared for their sacrificial feast. Under the chosen oak they would bring two white bulls whose horns had never been bound. A Druid dressed in a white robe would then climb the oak and with a golden sickle cut the mistletoe, which they caught in a white cloak. It was important to them that the mistletoe did not touch the ground and become contaminated. The Druids divided up the boughs into sprigs and distributed them among the people, believing that the mistletoe would protect them from fire and storms as well as evil spirits. It has never been clear exactly how they used mistletoe in their herbal cures, but it has had a reputation ever since as a “Heal All” and can be used to enhance fertility, cure nervous disorders and relieve high blood pressure. (Please consult a qualified herbalist first before using any herbal remedy).

The earliest archaeological evidence of mistletoe is from the Lindow Man; a bog body found preserved in Cheshire, England from the time of the Roman occupation. Analysis of his stomach contents revealed a few grains of mistletoe pollen and this has been interpreted as evidence that he drank some sort of mistletoe drink before his death. Some people believe that the mistletoe remains are proof that he was perhaps a Druid or even a sacrificial victim of the Druids, as mistletoe is poisonous in large amounts.

Mistletoe was so sacred in the eyes of the Celts that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms and exchange a friendly greeting, keeping the truce until the following day. From this ancient custom came the practice of hanging mistletoe over a doorway as a token of good will and peace to all who entered. By the 18th century in Britain, this evolved into the kissing tradition we have today. At this time, it became popular to create a ball of mistletoe that would be hung as a Christmas decoration. If a couple was found standing under the mistletoe, they had to kiss if the mistletoe ball still had berries. For each kiss, one berry would be taken from the ball. Once all the berries were gone, all the “luck” in love and marriage was considered to be drained out of the mistletoe and it was now bad luck to kiss beneath it.

According to Norse legend, when the Goddess Frigg and her son Baldur both had dreams concerning his death, Frigg made all of the things on Earth, both living and dead, take an oath to never harm Baldur. All took an oath not to harm Baldur except the mistletoe, who Frigga considered far too young. Read the rest of this story here on one of my favourite Norse mythology pages.

The Death of Baldur

The last fact about mistletoe is that it was banned from being used in church decorations when Christianity took root in northern Europe, most likely due to its connection with the old folkways. This ban is still widely observed today.

Yule Log Traditions

The Yule log was traditionally set alight in honour of the Norse God Thor; protector of mankind and the Aesir. Usually cut from an oak tree or sometimes an ash, the log was burnt in sympathetic magic to encourage the return of the sun.

The log would have been lit with a charred remain from last year’s Yule log, symbolising the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Sprigs of holly and other evergreens were thrown onto the burning wood to encourage a year of good fortune, health and protection. The log was never left to burn completely because pieces were needed to craft into charms that would protect the wearer over the coming year.

In some parts of Scotland a similar tradition was observed, but instead of a log, a figure of an old woman was carved from an old tree trunk. The Cailleach Nolliach which means ‘Old Winter’s Wife’ was brought into the house and laid onto a burning fire. The household would then gather and watch the figure be consumed by the flames. The Cailleach did not represent new life; she represented death. To avoid death and misfortune the carving was burnt to ashes.

Traditionally, those who followed the Old Germanic folkways brought the Yule log into the home on 20th December, which they called Mothers’ Night. Before the log entered the longhouse, a procession took place through the village with the decorated tree trunk decked out in ribbons and greenery. This was seen as a joyous occasion and after being lit, the huge tree trunk was expected to burn for twelve nights; not an issue when you lived in a longhouse. The log was seen as sacred symbol and no one was allowed to walk barefoot near it or even squint!

In Yorkshire, England, it was customary for children to beg and sing from house to house as the Yule log was carried in. This tradition was called Mumping or Gooding.

Nowadays sadly, the only Yule logs we see are chocolate ones found in the frozen section of supermarkets, but we can change this and start our own Yuletide tradition. For those of you who do not have an open fire or even a fire pit outside why not buy or make candle holders out of small branches and after lighting them blow out the candle and make a wish for the new year.