Wassail!

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Tis the season to make merry and by now we hope you’re safely at home with loved ones, preparing to celebrate a very happy Christmas – or Christ Mass, as some 17th Century English writers put it in their continual fervour to overcome the superstitions of the past and remind their countrymen of ‘the true meaning of Christmas’.

The criticisms of the perceived excesses of the festive period is nothing new and such concerns would be as familiar to our ancestors during the English Civil War as they are to us now; the food, the drink, the socialising – these were the moral evils that Parliament concerned itself with in the 1640s. There’s also the fact that many of our Christmas traditions stretch back far further than the 17th Century and, as such, often carried the tinge of superstition and pre-Christian times.

It is a common myth that Oliver Cromwell personally ‘banned’ Christmas. It was actually Parliament which clamped down on the celebration of Christmas and other saints’ and holy days during the 1640s, a prohibition which remained in force on paper until the Restoration in 1660. There is no evidence that Cromwell personally played a major role in formulating legislation which banned dancing, singing and celebrating – indeed, there is ample evidence that he enjoyed having a good time.

Although in theory and on paper the celebration of Christmas had been abolished, in practice many people continued to mark 25 December as a secular holiday. Semi-clandestine religious services continued to be held on 25 December and the secular elements of the day also continued. During the late 1640s attempts to prevent public celebrations and to force shops and businesses to stay open led to violent confrontations in many towns, including London, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich, so it is likely that many people continued to mark both the religious and the secular aspects of the holiday.

This post begins with a very traditional festive greeting – Wassail! Wassailing is an ancient southern English tradition that is performed with the intention of ensuring a good crop of cider apples for the next year’s harvest – exactly the kind of thing that the godly Parliament frowned upon! It also refers to both the salute ‘Waes Hail’, the term itself is a contraction of the Middle English phrase ‘wæs hæil’, meaning litereally ‘good health’ or ‘be you healthy’. It is a way of saying ‘cheers’ when drinking wassail – a hot mulled cider traditionally drunk as an integral part of the wassail ceremony, which mostly involved lots of drinking.

We will be having our own festive celebration at 7.30pm on Thursday 30th December at the Palace Pub on Kirkgate – please do come along and say hello for a pint or two. If you’d like to let us know you’re coming first, e-mail manchesterspr@ymail.com and we’ll keep an eye out for you!

We’re currently getting ready for our winter training event, at which will we be preparing for the much-anticipated annual at Nantwich on 22nd January so we will sign off with a hearty ‘Wassail’ and we wish you all a very merry Christmas, and a happy and healthy 2011 on behalf of The Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote!

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