A-Wassailing

What a glorious time, these days and nights of celebration
which form the blessed Twelve Days of Christmas.

For me, it is a time of restful reflection, a time of flipping through the pages of the past year, of recounting the good moments and the not-so-good moments and putting them all into some form of meaningful perspective.

It is a time of counting one’s fortunes and misfortunes. Over the course of a year there are bound to be at least a few of each – the debits and credits which add up to one voyage around the sun.

In a man’s life, he sees the world in terms of generations – his generation, and the generations before and after him. Family history unfurls with names upon a pedigree tree, each person neatly packaged within the bounds of a birth date and a death date. One day the man awakens to the realization that the sleet of winter falls against stone, hard and cold and unmoving “in the bleak midwinter.”

Yet, he also awakens to the promise of the younger generation, who with education and nurturing is now ready to play a positive role in this spiraling world of ours. Their youthfulness and optimism make the middle age man feel younger and more optimistic, and inspire him with a renewed commitment to contribute in a more meaning way.

But most of all these Twelve Days are a time to eat figs and nuts, a time to fill the bowl with tobacco and the cup with wassail, and to sit back and enjoy the simple winter pleasures of warmth and comfort while all outdoors is cold and snowy.  With the conclusion of the Twelfth Night we can take on the challenges of the new year ahead. But for now, I am content to relax, nibble, puff, and sip, and rejoice in the merriment.

The Twelve Days are a wonderful time to listen to traditional Christmas carols, and to glean the meaning within. In days of yore, Christmastide was a period of merriment, of revelry, of wassailing, and that is the theme for which I search as I place long playing records upon the turntable and warm to the crackling with attuned ears. Snifter raised, I search for the true spirit of Yuletide – wassail.

In olden days, carolers would stroll from house to house, singing to their occupants, and in turn, would be invited inside for food and drink, wassail being the traditional beverage – a mulled cider with a spirituous kick, strong enough to shake the chill from the revelers and fill them with an inner warmth. In fact, mention of strong drink can be found in a number of Yuletide carols, including the following…

From Good King Wenceslas*:

Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,

Bring me pine logs hither,

Thou and I shall see him dine,

When we bear them thither.

(Good King Wenceslas of Bohemia was killed in 935 A.D. by his own brother – Boleslaus the Cruel. I suppose if your moniker is “The Cruel” you have little choice in the matter.)

From We Wish You a Merry Christmas:

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding,

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding,

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer.

(The revelers of this particular carol are quite demanding, saying “We won’t go until we get some!” Nothing worse than company who overstay their welcome.)

The Wassail Song is perhaps the traditional carol which best provides the spirit of wassailing:

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,

Here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen,

Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail, too,

And God bless you, and send you a Happy New Year,

And God send you a Happy New Year.

And if all this reveling, and merrymaking, and wassailing from house to house has made you a little bit tipsy, perhaps you should, as they sing in the song Sleigh Ride*, stroll on over to “the home of Farmer Gray…when they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie.” I’ll take my coffee black, with an extra spoonful of whipped cream on the pie.

Or better yet, avoid the bubbly altogether, for as it says in the Gospel of St. Luke: “For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit … which we all know is non-alcoholic.” (Luke 1:15)

On behalf of Good King Wenceslas, Boleslaus the Cruel, Farmer Gray, St. Luke, and all the revelers, I wish my devoted readers (all three of you) a happy and healthy New Year!

Jack Sheedy

Co-author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest – at a library near you.

*Good King Wenceslas lyrics by John Mason Neale. Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson & Mitchell Parish. All others are traditional.

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