Up Helly Aa Vikings marching through the streets of Lerwick

Here We Come A-Wassailing

28th November 2014

If you thought the British winter was all about hunkering down with a box set and venturing out of doors as little as possible, think again, says Deborah Mulhearn…

While you’re tucked up cosily at home, all across the UK there are people, usually men, donning bizarre and sometimes sinister headgear and costumes in the freezing cold to celebrate ancient and not-so-ancient winter traditions.

Hogmanay in Edinburgh and New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square draw thousands from across the globe. These are the famous ones, but there are many more mass gatherings to mark the changing seasons. These can entail whirling fireballs, flaming barrels, hurling or toasting inanimate objects and chanting and singing, mostly to invoke fertility for the coming year.

Some follow the ‘Old Style’ or Julian calendar, which fell ten days short of the true solar year. The ‘New Style’ or Gregorian calendar that we still use today was introduced in the 16th century. This corrected the error and explains the confusion over festival dates and why some are celebrated on different days.

Wassail, for example, is traditionally celebrated on the Old Style Twelfth Night, which falls ten days after the Christian feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. Wassail was celebrated in apple-growing areas, and is simply a toast to apple trees to encourage them to produce good crop. Some communities have continued or revived this ancient custom, including The Lion’s Part, a group of actors, storytellers and street theatre performers who stage a Twelfth Night festival on London’s Bankside.

It starts with the Holly Man – the winter guise of the Green Man, representing life force – processing in a boat up the River Thames. He lands near Shakespeare’s Globe and toasts everybody and the procession walks to St George’s in Borough High Street, wassailing and making merry. “It’s a deeply fundamental way of celebrating seasonal change that people seem to enjoy,” says Sonia Ritter, festival co-ordinator. “Singing and dancing in the open air is life affirming.”

“It’s free and fun, and local businesses around Borough High Street do well,” says Ritter. “It engages people with their environment, with up to a thousand people joining in, and the beauty of it is that it doesn’t belong to any one organisation or group of people. It’s about people reclaiming their space, and it’s there for the community to enjoy.”

Up Helly Aa is a Viking fire festival held in Shetland on the last Tuesday of January every year. It draws several thousand people, though much of the preparation is shrouded in secrecy. “Lerwick Up Helly Aa and the other local fire festivals are a superb spectacle and a great demonstration of the islanders’ skills, passion and spirit to keep traditions alive,’ says Misa Hay of Promote Shetland. “Fire festivals are held throughout Shetland during winter and spring as a way of celebrating the islands’ distinctiveness and appreciating its Scandinavian heritage.”

Theese festivals not only bind local communities together, but, importantly, also boost local economies by bringing in ever-increasing numbers of tourists. “During the event, accommodation in Lerwick and the surrounding areas is booked up well in advance at what normally would be a quiet time of year. We have organised tours from the mainland too,” says Hay. People coming from as far afield as Alaska, Brazil and Russia to celebrate their Viking heritage, providing welcome winter revenue.

On New Year’s Eve in the village of Allendale in Northumberland, over a thousand people turn up to watch a procession of forty men in fancy dress carry flaming barrels on their heads to a bonfire in the village square. The Allendale Tar Bar’l Ceremony dates back to the Middle Ages and in recent times it’s been happening continuously since the mid 19th century. “No-one is exactly sure when and why it started,” says organiser Hilton Walker. “But it’s an enduring tradition passed down through the generations.”

The barrel carriers, called guisers, throw their flaming barrels onto the bonfire accompanied by the crowd chanting: ‘Be damned to he who throws last!’ “The guisers have to Allendale natives,” explains Walker, “and the older men are passing the tradition on to the young ones, so although it links to the past we make sure it’s got a future as well.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of the ceremony is that it provides a focus for community life. “People come from miles around, and tend to return for the next New Year’s Eve once they’ve seen it. They visit the local pubs, shops and cafes, so it’s good from a tourism perspective too.”

Ancient festivals and ceremonies also play their part in keeping languages and customs alive. The October cider-making festival in Jersey is one of the few remaining places it’s possible to hear the original Jèrriais language spoken, for example. And in Wales, the Mari Lwyd is a Welsh language New Year’s ritual dating back to pre-history.

Taking the Mari Lwyd out

The Mari Lwyd is a decorated horse’s skull that is taken round the houses and pubs of the south Wales valleys and coal mining areas, traditionally in the period between Christmas and New Year. “It’s important for the Welsh language and it’s part of our social history,’ says Dai James, who has been ‘taking out’ the Mari Lwyd for forty years. “It’s great fun but we take it seriously too and see it as our duty to keep this ancient tradition going. It keeps the pubs in business at quiet times but most importantly it is all done in Welsh.”

A back-and-forth singing contest ensues with the men outside the door singing a verse, then the women inside responding, until one side runs out of verses. It’s based on the premise that the women will give in first, which allows the men to push against the door and be feasted. “It’s great fun and it gives a sense of pride in our culture and belonging to the valleys. People come to watch from a long way away and all this interest keeps it from dying out.”

Festivals such as Up Helly Aa and Hop Tu Naa, celebrated on Halloween on the Isle of Man, are aimed at local communities and not tourists, though tourists are welcome. But crucially this creates a virtuous circle where local traditions attract tourists because they are authentic experiences, and their presence in turn helps to keep those local traditions alive.

“The roots of any culture have to be strong if they are to survive,” says Jude Dicken, curator at Manx National Heritage. “And festivals can build on that by engendering a sense of pride and ownership. Whatever the weather, thousands of people turn up to carve turnips for Hop Tu Naa at our living museum at Cregneash.”

So men – and women – of Britain: dig out your horse’s skull, brandish your flaming torch, raise your wassail cup and say Cheers! Slainte! Prost! Bottoms Up!

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