Cornish Wassailing

Cornish Wassailing.
Over the past few years it has been common to see in the media and wassails represented as an ancient English tradition where orchards are “blessed” by Morris dancers who dowse the roots of Apple trees with cider. This vision of the Wassail is only a tiny part of a very large group of traditions which were spread right across Britain. The Wassail can roughly be divided into three groups, the Apple or crop Wassail where a blessing ritual is performed to bring luck to future crops, the Hall Wassail a banquet tradition where a ritual cup is passed from person to person symbolically to hand on good luck and good health and lastly the Visit Wassail. In this fascinating and colourful custom small groups of “Wassailers” go door to door carrying a cup full of specially concocted drink which they offer in a “Wassail Bowl” to local residents. The word Wassail does not sit comfortably with some Celtic revivalists who see the entire practice as English imposition forced upon a Celtic population, largely no doubt because of the origin of the word itself whose etymology comes from an Early English toast “Waes-Hael”
or good health.

The truth however, is that the Visit Wassail was and is a firm part of the Cornish cultural landscape dismissing the Cornish Wassail as “English” would be like dismissing Thomas Meritt’s carols as French because the word carol has a French origin. .The most famous of these Visit Wassail traditions takes place in Bodmin every Twelfth Night where splendidly dressed Wassailers symbolically spread cheer throughout the town carrying with them the Bodmin Wassail cup. This is in fact the oldest recorded Visit Wassail of any kind. It is however the tip of iceberg with regards to Cornish Wassailing. Malpas, Penzance, Camborne and Redruth are only a few of the places where traditions were recorded. Camborne in fact has two Wassailing teams, one called the “Turkey Claw Choir” who’s Master of Ceremonies carried a staff with a turkeys claw attached to the tip. Malpas and Redruth had particularly attractive Wassail tunes, both of which were recorded by folk song collectors in detail, the lyrics of both moulded by the communities that played host to these traditions, reflecting different establishments and attitudes. A very interesting piece of audio exists of Cornish broadcaster Ted Gundry interviewing a Pendeen resident in the early 1970’s about Pendeen’s Wassail. It includes a description of one of the principle Wassail drinks in Cornwall, Shenagrum a mixture of rum, dark sugar and beer (it’s actually a very pleasant drink!).

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