Worcestershire Wassailing Song
"Wassail, Wassail, all over the town,Out toast is white, our ale is brown,Our bowl is made of a maplin tree;We be good fellows all - I drink to thee!"
Ahhhhhhh! The smell of evergreen, of apples, cinnamon, cloves and ale alters my senses. They carry me away to a time and place of both joy and struggle. A time of kinship, ancient and modern. A time to celebrate life and its fullness; while always mindful of those ancestors dead but not forgotten. Oaths and boasts abound as merriment and Frith rule the day. Hail Jolnir and the Oaths of Yule! Yes, it is that wondrous time ofyear once again. Yule, when presents are freely given and goodwill is the watchword of the hour.
But, what is Yule? Is it the celebration of the birth of a minor Middle Eastern teacher? Does this holiday exist only as an excuse for parades, football games and commercial profits? Or perhaps...it is much more...Sacred and Rich in meaning and steeped in lore!
Yule-tide was and is recognized as the most important blessing of the Teutonic year. Yule (sometimes referred to as Midwinter) serves as the perfect counterbalance to Midsummer representing the extremes of Light to Darkness and Darkness to Light. At Midsummer, Sunna is celebrated at her highest stead where all "secrets and mysteries" are exposed to her light. During the dark nights of winter these mysteries lay hidden in an Etin-cover of ice and snow. There they remain, in a dark and secret place, awaiting their rebirth with the coming of the Mother Night (winter solstice). This event marks the most accepted beginning of the Yule season and continues through Twelfth Night (called Yule Proper by those of Eagles Reaches). The Twelve Nights of Yule serve both as a symbol of the old year's passing and as a nurturing process for the seasons to come. The symbolism and rituals surrounding this most Holy of blessing have always been one of life, death and rebirth.
Even in the bastardized form of "Christmas" this essential truth remains. Yule, besides all else, is a celebration of life coming from death, warmth from icy cold and hope in times of despair. It is the "natural" embodiment of the triumph of the will; that special quality which turns struggle and ordeal into heroic achievement. Yule-tide customs and traditions are as many and varied as the folk who celebrate them. These festivities, both ancient and modern, will be explored in the following pages. Also, it will be the attempt of this author to present this knowledge in a practical and usable form for today's Pagan.
The dark nights of Yule are a time of deep reflection and of ancestor worship. In the teutonic way of thinking, it is from our "ancestral memory banks" that personal enlightenment has its roots. It is through our ancestors that we have a "genetic link" to the past and in part it is this link that we honor in ritual and ceremony. In this sense our Yule is somewhat similar to the Irish Celtic Celebration of Samhain (pronounce sah- wayne). Both the Celtic and the Teutonic peoples believe that their blessing was at a time in which the realm of the dead and the world of the living drew closer in some magical and mysterious way. Of course, the observance of Samhain was traditionally done during what is now known as the month of October and time-wise closer to the Germanic Blessing of Harvest and Winter Findings (Winter Nights to those in Eagles Reaches).
While Yule is closer to midwinter, occurring in the months of December and early January. What is important for the followers of Asatru/Odinism is to remember that honoring the name and spirit of our ancestors should be of primary focus during all future blessings of Yule.
As evidence of another Yule-tide tradition is the wassailing song presented at the beginning of this commentary. The custom of wassailing is as important as it is ancient. The most common use of the term "wassail" is one of describing a festive drink. There are various recipes. A favorite of mine is a personal variation of one made during the reign of Charles I: ...Slowly boil five pints of ale (Double Diamond is my personal choice). While the ale is heating beat together six eggs (both whites and yolks) and add to the ale. Add roasted apples, 1/2 cup of honey, fresh nutmeg, 1 handful of cloves and 1/2 cup of sliced fresh ginger root and finally 1/4 cup of brown sugar. Let the mixture brew for at least 10 minutes and serve piping hot. There are many folks today that prefer the use of apple cider to the Ale. Whichever you chose, the result is quite appealing. It is also the custom to take the brew about the neighborhood carrying it in a wooden bowl (Wassail Bowl) while leading a procession from door to door singing and spreading the feeling of Frith and good cheer.
In ancient times the traditional Yule feast was marked by an event known as ale-frith. The actual name was mungatstidhir or ale days. Another related tradition is that of the Yule Cup. During this celebration a Yule-tide peace was declared. Here is a custom which continued despite the christianization of Europe. In the old days, the feasting and drinking itself was a test of the individual. It was from such a test that a person's, an entire family or even a clan's luck (in the archaic sense of the word) was determined. Woe would be unto the one that did not feel the frith and the ale grip them! One that could not drink oneself into "spiritual fellowship" with the rest of the celebrants must be a person forsaken by luck (a niding). When the Gods depart from the festivities the ale would degenerate into strong alcohol and divine intoxication would then give way to drunkenness pure and simple. One strange event would be that of the celebrants feigning to be drunk and slowly sliding down to the floor to avoid the nidh or shame of being luckless. Even worse, would be the event of almost no one being touched by the Gods. This would mean that the ale was no good and that the entire House (feudal sense) was then held in contempt and that their coming year's ordeal would be tragic. Another serious offense was that of refusing to partake of the holy ale, insulting not only the celebrants, but the Gods themselves. One such accounting was the story of the famous feast at Hladi.
Earl Sigurd got Hakon AEthelstansfostri (then Christian King of Norway) to celebrate a blot. The Earl began as the chairman of the blot and drank a toast to the King, thus drawing him into the Holy Circle of Frith. The people watch closely to see if the King would do his part. When King Hakon hesitated, riot broke out. If Hakon would not eat and drink holiness with them, he was not of their frith and who could then trust him to share and answer for their luck and honor?! His refusal was a scornful challenge because by just sitting there and not partaking he created a dead spot in the circle. Magically put, it broke the energy or cohesive force created by all those in attendance and placed the goodwill of the rest; one towards the other in greatest peril imaginable. A very important lesson in both etiquette and magical practice is addressed here. If a person plans not to partake of a particular blessing...DO NOT COME AT ALL!! Otherwise, the aim of the blessing, the festive or mystic mood of the celebrants and the honoring of a great house (including their ancestors) could be put in jeopardy.
Even though the concepts of the Yule Cup and Ale-Frith may not have a direct line of connecting them to today's custom of Wassailing historically, it is this author's firm conviction that the spirit (both magically and religiously) of all three remain essentially the same. Namely, they are all blessing of health, good fellowship, peace and a oneness with the Aesir andVanir. Proof of this assertion may lie within the etymology of the word Wassail itself. The common spelling and meaning of the term is derived from a mongrelization of the Anglo-Saxon "Waes(thu)hal" which means "be thou healthy or hale" when used as a toast or a greeting. From the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, it is shown to have stemmed from both the terms Kailo, meaning "whole or of good omen" and Wes(wesan or waes) meaning "to be." In Old English Hal means "hale or whole." The Old English word Halig means "holy" and is also derived from the same roots. Thus, it is most appropriate to celebrate our highest holiday (holy day) of Yule with a refreshment whose very name validates the essential gifts of the season.
Another form of wassailing is evident in the British Isles. Here, besides the drink being observed the locals also, "wassail" trees. A hymn is usually sung to the tree wishing it good health and long life. A blessing is also bestowed upon it to be fruitful and then guns are fired or some other loud oise is made in order to drive off any woeful wights. Toasts to the tree are then drunk from the wassail bowl. When all have finished their toasts, the remainder of the holy liquid is pour out on the earth around the trunk while toast or cakes from the wassail are placed upon its branches. This is a christianization of the old form of "tree wassailing." It is not advisable to try and scare off any of the wights as you may frighten friendly ones as well. Gifts of varying types are quite sufficient in placating these folk.
This leads us to one of the more recognizable traditions...the Yule Tree. The Yule Tree, called the Christmas Tree in today's world, goes back to the Germanic Heathen tradition of providing "gifts" for the alfar (elves) in order to gain their aid in the coming year (or at least not provoke their wrath). The symbol of the tree has always been of tantamount importance to those whose ancestry stems from northern and central Europe. Even in our cosmology we refer to the term World-Tree or Yggdrasil when talking about the nine worlds of existence. The Yew tree is an evergreen that is special to Odhinn and is believed to possess magical and curative powers. Even in modern medical science, the Yew has become an important source of research for a cure for cancer. It is also a link to our relationship with the Gods and Goddesses. From our lore it is said that both those we call Gods/Goddesses and the race known as humanity came from trees. Female from the Birch and males from the Ash or Yew. With this in mind, it is no wonder why the symbol of the tree is one of holiness to us. Just as it is not a surprise that the christianized degeneration of trees, (and for that fact all of nature) as sacred images, to be insulting.
The practices of decorating the tree was a form of sacrifice and whether we want to admit it or not, it still serves basically the same purpose today. It is best to keep in mind when you adorn your tree with ornaments just what those decorations stand for. From personal experience, those of us at Eagles Reaches have found that making sacral gifts to be a powerful, as well as, enjoyable experience. The symbolism of the gifts offered is also very important. Would you try to honor the elves with trappings denoting the birth and celebration of the leader of a middle-eastern cult that has spent the last 2,000 years trying to eliminate them from the face of the earth? I think not! It was only because our ancestors were under the scrutiny of "the church" that the trees had to be brought indoors in the first place. The most appropriate types of "gifts" to be hung should be those that are either natural and edible or symbolic, such as a Golden Eagle placed at the tree's top. Some personal suggestions would be: strings of popcorn, candy or cranberries, sugar cookies with runic or other symbolic figures on them, candy canes, cinnamon sticks tied with ribbon into the shape of the Gebo ( ) rune and golden delicious apples covered in cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as, being stuffed with cloves and wrapped in netting tied by a brightly colored bow. For an even greater religious effect you may add other symbols that relate to the World-Tree such as two ravens, mimir's well at the bottom, the Norns and the World Serpent. This might sound like a lot of trouble but, the rewards are worth the effort.
Speaking of leaving gifts for the elves...what about that most famous (in the Hollywood sense) elf of all? yes, that "rotund fellow" dressed in red, whit and black (Hmmmm! interesting color scheme), Santa Claus. As it is sung in our carols and shown on our television sets, we leave milk and cookies for this kindly imp. But why? First of all, it is appropriate to leave the alfar gifts of milk and cookies. It works quite nicely as an appeasement in our home and has served us well on numerous occasions. Secondly, because Santa, St. Nicholas, etc. is not a Christian "saint" or figure at all! Even though there is a St. Nicholas in Christianity, he has almost nothing in common with the figure that we know and love. Think about this rationally for a moment. Here is this fellow who descends from the north pole around the time of the winter solstice. He has a long white or grey beard and dresses predominately in red (note: red is as symbolic of the Germanic Alfs as green is to the Celtic Wee People) with black and white trim. He drives a flying sled pulled by reindeer (two of which are said to be named Donner (Thunder); also the German name for Thorr and Blitzen (Lightning); one of Thorr's symbols) and is at times referred to as the "jolly old elf." It does not take a scholar to see that this so-called Santa Clause has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity.
"So, who is St. Nick," you ask? He is none other than the supreme God of the Aesir, Odhinn! Here is a deity that has a white or grey beard hailing from the ancient north. He is a God with many names. One such name is Nick. It is well documented that he gave up one eye to gain his famous wisdom. With his remaining eye he was able to indicate a "secret" with just "a wink of an eye" (remember your Christmas songs and stories, kids?). Satan or the Devil is sometimes called "Old Nick" in England. He is the stealer of souls. The followers of Odhinn's path wore the Valknutr or Knot of the Slain as a sign that they have already forfeited their lives in the service of Odhinn in exchange for wisdom and knowledge. Still not convinced? Then let's turn to the realm of folklore through Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology in his description of Odhinn and the Wild Hunt: "...He hunts the twelve nights of Yule with the barking of his dogs and a hoto, hoto cry (could this be related to Ho, Ho, Ho) has a white beard. Once a carpenter had the courage to add his own ho, ho and a black mass came tumbling down the chimney (sound familiar?)... Later in the passages it says: "...The folk leave him a bundle of oats for his horse. He visits the land upon the holy tide bringing welfare and blessing, accepting gifts and offerings..." It is more than evident to a person with an open mind and a true heart as to just who this "saint" is. A person would do well to remember that fact in any and all blessings concerning Yule. As a side note, there is another name in which he travels by and has a close association to the Yule-tide season: Jol or Jolnir. This is even evident in a "Christmas Card" I once received from Sweden. On the inside was written the Greeting "Gut Jol" or "Good Yule" which is roughly equivalent to the English "Merry Christmas."
Perhaps the greatest symbol of light in the times of darkness is the unextenguished flame that burns throughout the long nights of Yule. Here is an all too often forgotten tradition that symbolizes the eternal light (solar might) that warms and nurtures us the year round. The Yule log is a piece of wood (preferably ash, yew, birch or some other wood considered sacred to your area) that is either found lying upon the ground of your sacred grove or is cut from a tree (after asking the tree its' permission of course) and taken to the hearth to be burned over twelve hour period each and every night on the holy tide. It should be lit on the first night of Yule, though some say it should be set to flame on December 24. The basic disagreement is on exactly when the season begins. My advice is to stick with the solstice as your customary starting point and you will not be far off. The standard way in which to light the faggot is from the fragments of the previous year's log. In areas such as Houston, where a hearth is for the most part impractical, candles are often used in place of the log itself. A particular variation of this tradition is practiced at Eagles Reaches. First, a log is taken in the traditional manner. It is then bedecked with evergreen branches, poinsettias, holly and other seasonal items. At the top rest three candles; red, white and black (the three holy colors of our ancestors) and are lit each night of the tide. They are replaced with fresh candles the following morning in keeping with the spirit of the original practice.
There is also another light that shines during this most holy of festivals. It is known as the Light Tree or Light Apple. This structure is composed of an apple or several apples supported by sticks. Upon it are attached various nuts and sprigs of holly, ivy and possibly mistletoe (though not usually the case). Also, evergreen leaves are attached with a circle of candles towards the top. Cloves and other spices add a nice touch as well. The Yule Light Apple is used as the centerpiece during the main feast. With all of these beautiful and meaningful customs why is it that their original luster and impact have been lost on today's world? The answer lies disturbingly on the infiltration of the aforementioned middle-eastern cult called Christianity. In a letter from Pope Gregory I to Augustine on the method of converting the Heathen of England he says: "...tell him of the plans I have for converting the Angles. The temples should not be destroyed (as had been done previously), but the idols which are housed in them should be. ...If the temples are soundly constructed, then they must be transformed from places in which demons are worshipped into places that are pleasing to God....These festivals (such as Yule)...need to be changed into "dedication days" and the birthdays of holy martyrs, whose relics should be housed in the tabernacles made from the boughs of the trees around the temples that have been transformed into churches. Let them celebrate their festivals as (Christian) religious feasts..." The lies, manipulations and insidious perversions by the minions of the Christ Child have "almost" destroyed the most holy of all blessings. It can only be revived by a return to the spirit of the old ways whenever possible, by staying true to our ancestral Gods and Goddesses and to our ancestors themselves. For without them that which is and that which is becoming would be empty and hollow. We MUST reclaim what is rightfully ours...Our Religion...Our Birthright...OUR CULTURE!