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Where Do We Find Wassail?
Shedding some light on Bells & Motley's Christmas Concerts & Pageants
of Olden Music, Dance, and Storytelling

On Mumming and Olde English Yuletide Traditions

The Christmas Season has long been a time for reinventing the past.
In the glow of a Yule Log fire, real or imagined, people feel their way back through the halls and passages of time to Christmases of old. In this hubbub that is modern America, we are beckoned during the Christmas season to the symbolic celebrations of Victorian England, an era which has grown to become one of our favorite Golden Ages. But you should know that in the very same way, the Victorians themselves were also engaged in the art of exploring and reinventing Christmas Past, as witnessed by the writings of Englishman Charles Dickens, and American authors Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore. By great imagination and elaboration on what traditions and remnants of Medieval and Renaissance times they could discover, these writers were greatly instrumental in setting our notion of the Merry Olde English Christmas Past as we know and celebrate it today.

What are some of the sights and sounds, traditions and characters that we can find in Victorian writings? And how many of these survive as British Isles folk traditions even today?

Father Christmas: This Character originates in Merry Old Renaissance England, where he was also known as "Sir Christmas," and is quite distinct from others who claim the name in different countries. You can find our Father Christmas wreathed in a crown of holly and never far from a groaning table of food and drink, for he is the very embodiment of mirth and festivity. During the 12 Days of Christmas, he is one of the main characters in the bands of "Mummers," villagers that go door-to-door enacting comical, ceremonial ritual plays for gatherings of neighbors. This English Father Christmas functions more as the animating spirit of Christmas celebration, rather than as a giver of gifts, though he does often bring token treats for the young ones. Many English folks today can tell you of the pleasure of finding a single orange in their stocking or shoe. (See Dylan Thomas: A Child's Christmas in Wales.)

Mummers' Plays: Wherein village neighbors disguise themselves in costumes of rags, ribbon, and sometimes soot, to enact the story of St. George and the Dragon, or any story where the character of good triumphs over its foe. The story lines are often delivered in rhyme, with over-the-top drama, and the sillier, the better to gather an audience. The cast of characters in these plays may also include Father Christmas, a hobby horse, a quack doctor as an "intercessor," a team of morris or sword dancers, and other symbolic characters who assist in the spectacle. It is said that the story's ceremonious battle, death, and revival -- which may be brought about by the dancers, or by a draught of ceremonial wassail -- is a mirror of the birth of the new year, and the sun's return on the winter solstice. Likewise, it is the triumph of Light over Darkness, of Good over Evil.

Wassailing: This is the custom of going door-to-door singing carols, accompanied by a large wooden wassail bowl. Each region in England had its own traditional "wassailing songs." These songs all had the same theme: to bid good health to neighbors, friends, "kin and kinsfolk," and all the cows, horses, dogs, and apple trees within the village bounds. In the spirit of sharing, all who put something into the communal bowl likewise will draw something marvelous out when they drink their draft of it. The toast: "WASSAIL!" comes from the old Anglo-Saxon salutation "Wes thu Hael," meaning "Be thou Hail, Be thou Healthy" for the new year. All the best for a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year!

Planning a Wassailing Pageant Event? Here is a link to how Bells & Motley approached their Wassail Pageant Community Extravaganza in their own village community of Marcellus NY. Includes great photos! click here!

For their Christmas Wassailing performances, John & Sondra play a glorious array of instruments favored in Victorian times, including:

Hammered Dulcimer: a large trapezoidal zither played with light wooden beaters. The dulcimer dates back to Persia in Biblical times, spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and became a favorite for American barn dances.

Squeezebox: The original accordeon, with a keyboard of buttons instead of the more recently adopted piano keyboard. Unlike the piano accordian, the squeezebox is built to play in only 1 or 2 keys, for a very strong and direct musical expression. This was invented in England in the 1820's, further refined in Germany, and soon played throughout the world.

Whittle & Dub, or Pipe and Tabor: a 3-holed recorder and drum combination, one for each hand, for a one-man village band. A favorite since the Middle Ages.

Hurdy Gurdy: A keyboard fiddle dating from a 10th century French monastery, later found throughout Europe as an instrument for street musicians.

Mandocello: A cello-sized mandolin used in mandolin orchestras of the late 1800's and early 1900's, invented in America.

Northumbrian Smallpipes: A bellows-blown bagpipes from the northern-most part of England, closely related to the Irish Uillean Pipes.

Crumhorns: Renaissance relatives of the oboe, having reeds that buzz freely under a cap, like a bagpipes without a bag, rediscovered in Victorian times by musical antiquarians.

Article credit Sondra and John Bromka, for use in parallel with publicity for Bells & Motley presentations

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