The Harvest Customs and Traditions in Dorset

Harvest HomeExtract taken from the Chambers Book of Days August 1st 1864, details the traditions of Lammas.

LAMMAS – This was one of the four great pagan festivals of Britain, the others being on 1st November, 1st February, and 1st May. The festival of the Gule of August, as it was called, probably celebrated the realisation of the first-fruits of the earth, and more particularly that of the grain-harvest. When Christianity was introduced, the day continued to be observed as a festival on these grounds, and, from a loaf being the usual offering at church, the service, and consequently the day, came to be called Half-mass, subsequently shortened into Lammas, just as hlaf-dig (bread-dispenser), applicable to the mistress of a house, came to be softened into the familiar and extensively used term, lady. This we would call the rational definition of the word Lammas.

There is another, but in our opinion utterly inadmissible derivation, pointing to the custom of bringing a lamb on this day, as an offering to the cathedral church of York. Without doubt, this custom, which was purely local, would take its rise with reference to the term Lammas, after the true original signification of that word had been forgotten. It was once customary in England, in contravention of the proverb, that a cat in mittens catches no mice, to give money to servants on Lammas-day, to buy gloves; hence the term Glove-Silver. It is mentioned among the ancient customs of the abbey of St. Edmund’s, in which the clerk of the cellarer had 2d.; the cellarer’s squire, 11d.; the granger, 11d.; and the cowherd a penny. Anciently, too, it was customary for every family to give annually to the pope on this day one penny, which was thence called Denarius Sancti Petri, or Peter’s Penny.’—Hampson’s Medii AEvi Kalendarium.

What appears as a relic of the ancient pagan festival of the Gule of August, was practised in Lothian till about the middle of the eighteenth century. From the unenclosed state of the country, the tending of cattle then employed a great number of hands, and the cow-boys, being more than half idle, were much disposed to unite in seeking and creating amusement. In each little district, a group of them built, against Lammas-day, a tower of stones and sods in some conspicuous place.

On Lammas-morning, they assembled here, bearing flags, and blowing cow-horns — breakfasted together on bread and cheese, or other provisions—then set out on a march or procession, which usually ended in a foot-race for some trifling prize. The most remarkable feature of these rustic fetes was a practice of each party trying, before or on the day, to demolish the sod fortalice of some other party near by. This, of course, led to great fights and brawls, in which blood was occasionally spilt. But, on the whole, the Lammas Festival of Lothian was a pleasant affair, characteristic of an age which, with less to gain, had perhaps rather more to enjoy than the present”

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Harvest Home in Dorset in his book ‘Dorsetshire Folklore’ published in 1922:-

HAY-MAKING

Haymaking

Haymaking in Dorset – DCM © 2015

The season of hay-making would seem never to have been such a period of gaiety and festivity in Dorsetshire as was the case with the “harvest-home” gatherings later in the year. The success of the hay harvest, however, was a very important matter to so large a pastoral community as the county comprised; and without doubt some celebration by way of reward for and appreciation of services loyally rendered, often in long extended hours of work when the weather was uncertain, was indulged in at the conclusion of that harvest. Extra money payments, as in the corn harvest, have largely taken the place of social gatherings and festivities amongst the labourers in which their employers once freely joined. Still in many places at the ingathering of the hay an extra jar of cider or ale would be brought out, and the men would sit down and have a chat amongst themselves and, perhaps, a song or two ; whilst at the close hats would be raised and ” hip, hip, hurrahs ” would be given.

In later years, both in hay and corn harvesting, machinery has taken a very active part in reducing the amount of manual labour employed in these operations, which at its introduction went sorely against the conservative feelings of the Dorset peasant. This feeling was just as strongly expressed as in the great industrial centres in the North where labour-saving appliances were ever on the increase; and sometimes took the form of reprisals by way of burning hay and corn ricks as well as the occasional destruction of the offending machinery.

Under these influences in course of time the very names of the old haymakers’ several occupations would be lost. In William Barnes’s early days—a century ago—these were numerous and distinctive. We are fortunate in having him to record what they were. Here is a description which he gives in his Glossary (1863) of what haymaking was like in his time (s.v. Häymeäken).

“Hay-making consists of several operations which with fine weather, commonly follow each other in Dorsetshire, thus : The mown grass—in zwath, swath,—is thrown abroad—tedded, and afterwards turned once or twice ; in the evening it is raked up into little ridges—rollers,—single or double, as they may be formed by one raker, or by two raking against each other ; and sometimes put up into small cones or heaps, called cocks. On the following morning the rollers or cocks are thrown abroad in passels—parcels,—which, after being turned, are in the evening put up into large ridges—weals ; and the weals are sometimes pooked, put up into larger cones—pooks,—in which the hay is loaded. In raking grass into double rollers, or pushing hay into weals, the fore raker or pickman is said to rake in or push in, or row or roo, and the other to close.”

Barnes had already preserved many of these terms in two of his charming dialect poems, one on “Häymeäken “, and the other on “Häy-carrén” (pp. 51-2), which afford so delightful a picture of rustic life in the hay-field that one feels inclined to say, too:

“I do long to toss a pick,
A pitchén or a-meäkén rick.”

HARVEST HOME

The celebration of the ingathering of the corn harvest is common to all our counties and to most countries. Full accounts of these festivals and their significance may be found in Brand’s, Hone’s, and Chambers’s works, as well as in those of less known writers.

It is to the late William Barnes that we might expect to look for a fitting description of a Dorset harvest-home feast, or supper, and we find it in an account,—as particular and as life-like as a painting of an old Dutch interior—of what usually took place on these occasions, which he contributed to Hone’s Year Book (p. 586), from which I take the following extract:—

“Harvest Home, formerly celebrated with great mirth but now a declining usage, was a feast given by the farmer at the end of harvest, or when his hay and corn were got in … Some years ago the ‘ harvest home ‘ in my native county, Dorset, was kept up with good old English hospitality.

Harvesting

Reapers gathering the harvest – DCM © 2015

“When the last load was ricked the labourers, male and female, the swarthy reaper and the sun-burnt hay-maker, the saucy boy who had not seen twelve summers and the stiff horny-handed old mower who had borne the toil of fifty, all made a happy groupe, and went with singing and loud-laughing to the harvest-home supper at the farmhouse, where they were expected by the good mistress, dressed in a quilted petticoat and a linsey-wolsey apron, with shoes fastened by large silver buckles which extended over her foot like a pack-saddle on a donkey.

“The dame and her husband welcomed them to a supper of good wholesome food, a round of beef, and a piece of bacon; and perhaps the host and hostess had gone so far as to kill a fowl or two, or stick a turkey, which they had fattened in the wheat-yard. The plain English fare was eaten from wooden trenchers, by the side of which were put little cups of horn filled with beer or cider. When the cloth was removed one of the men, putting forth his large hand like the gauntlet of an armed knight, would grasp his horn of beer, and standing up on a pair of legs which had long out-grown the largest holes of the village stocks, and with a voice which, if he had not been speaking a dialect of the English language, you might have thought came from the deep-seated lungs of a lion, he would propose the health of the farmer in the following lines :—

‘Here’s a health unto our miaster
The founder of the feast,
And I hope to God wi’ all my heart
His soul in heaven mid rest;
That everything mid prosper
That ever he tiak in hand,
Vor we be all his sarvants,
And all at his command.’

“After this would follow a course of jokes, anecdotes, and songs, in some of which the whole company joined, without attention to the technicalities of counterpoint, bass, tenor, and treble, common chords and major thirds; but each singing the air and pitching in at the key that best fitted his voice, making a medley of big and little sounds, like the lowings of oxen and the low beatings of old ewes, mixed up with the shrill pipings of the lambs at a fair.

“The conversation commonly turned on the incidents of the summer ; how the hay-makers overtook the mowers, or how the rain kept the labour back ; how they all crept in a heap under the waggon in a thunderstorm ; how nearly some of them were crushed under the load that was upset; who was the best mower or reaper in the village ; which field yielded the best crop ; and which stack was most likely to heat.”

Later Barnes devoted two of his charming dialect poems to a similar description, which form such a delightful complement to the whole subject that I have no hesitation in reproducing them here in full. They are to be found at pp. 78-80 of the first collected edition of the poems published by Kcgan Paul & Co. in 1879, and again in 1888. (The first edition of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect was in 1844, whilst the earlier edition of Hone’s Year Book in which Barnes’s contribution first appeared was published in 1832. A change of spelling in some of the dialect words,—particularly the ‘”vowel sounds “,— (e.g. ” ia “, in ” miaster “, or ” tiak “, to ” eä, “) will be noticed in the earlier and later editions of the poems ; a scheme not involving so much a change of pronunciation» perhaps, but, as justified by Barnes in the preface to the third edition of his ” first collection” of poems, published in 1862, on the ground that ” while it affords the Dorset forms of the words to Dorset readers it may make them of more English look and more legible to others “.)

HARVEST HWOME

The vu’st peärt. The Supper.

“Since we wer striplèns naïghbour John,

The good wold merry times be gone:
But we do like to think upon
What we’ve a-zeed an’ done.
When I wer up a hardish lad,
At harvest hwome the work-vo’k had
Sich suppers, they wer jumpèn mad
Wi’ feästèn an’ wi’ fun.

At uncle’s, I do mind, woone year,
I zeed a vill o’ hearty cheer;
Fat beef an’ puddèn, eäle an’ beer,
Vor ev’ry workman’s crop
An’ after they’d a-gie’d God thanks,
They all zot down, in two long ranks,
Along a teäble-bwoard o’ planks,
Wi’ uncle at the top.

An’ there, in platters, big and brown,
Wer red fat beäcon, an’ a roun’
O’ beef wi’ gravy that would drown
A little rwoastèn pig;
Wi’ beäns an’ teäties vull a zack,
An’ cabbage that would meäke a stack,
An’ puddèns brown, a-speckled black
Wi’ figs, so big’s my wig.

An’ uncle, wi’ his elbows out,
Did carve, an’ meäke the gravy spout;
An’ aunt did gi’e the mugs about
A-frothèn to the brim.
Pleätes werden then ov e’then ware,
They ate off pewter, that would bear
A knock; or wooden trenchers, square,
Wi’ zalt-holes at the rim.

An’ zoo they munch’d their hearty cheer,
An’ dipp’d their beards in frothy-beer,
An’ laugh’d, an’ jok’d–they couldden hear
What woone another zaid.
An’ all o’m drink’d, wi’ woone accword,
The wold vo’k’s health: an’ beät the bwoard,
An’ swung their eärms about, an’ roar’d,

Enough to crack woone’s head.

Second Peärt. What they did after Supper.

Zoo after supper wer a-done,
They clear’d the teäbles, an’ begun
To have a little bit o’ fun,
As long as they mid stop.
The wold woones took their pipes to smoke,
An’ tell their teäles, an’ laugh an’ joke,
A-lookèn at the younger vo’k,
That got up vor a hop.

Woone screäp’d away, wi’ merry grin,
A fiddle stuck below his chin;
An’ woone o’m took the rollèn pin,
An’ beät the fryèn pan.
An’ tothers, dancèn to the soun’,
Went in an’ out, an’ droo an’ roun’,
An’ kick’d, an’ beät the tuèn down,
A-laughèn, maïd an’ man.

An’ then a maïd, all up tip-tooe,
Vell down; an’ woone o’m wi’ his shoe
Slit down her pocket-hole in two,
Vrom top a-most to bottom.
An’ when they had a-danc’d enough,
They got a-plaÿèn blindman’s buff,
An’ sard the maïdens pretty rough,
When woonce they had a-got em.

An’ zome did drink, an’ laugh, an’ roar,
An’ lots o’ teäles they had in store,
O’ things that happen’d years avore
To them, or vo’k they know’d.
An’ zome did joke, an’ zome did zing,
An’ meäke the girt wold kitchen ring;
Till uncle’s cock, wi’ flappèn wing,
Stratch’d out his neck an’ crow’d.

To these Barnes has added ” A Zong of the Harvest Home ” (p. 80), of which the refrain to each of the six verses is:

“The happy zight—the merry night—
The men’s delight—the Harvest Hwome.”

Again, many years later, in his ” Fore-say ” to this work, Barnes speaks of the decline of the old-time celebrations of this festival. He says: “The feasts of Harvest-Home in which the work-folk were invited to

‘the hall
where beards wagged all,—'(Thomas Tusser: Five Hundred Points of Husbandry)

to share of mirth and meat under the smiles of the master and mistress, as tokens of approbation of their work, are now less customary than they formerly were, as in these commercial days it seems to be felt that the clock measures all the workman owes his master and the paytable all that the master owes to him.”

As Brand says (i, 443), ” Different places adopt different ceremonies ” ; but that which seems to me to conform most to the Dorset ritual on these occasions is that of ” crying the knack “, or ” neck “, in the neighbouring counties of Devon and Cornwall, and in which there seems not only a strong affinity but traces of considerable antiquity. (Conf. Shropshire Folk-lore, pp372-3)

In 1873 I contributed an article to Notes and Queries (Ser. iv, xii, 491), describing ” A Dorsetshire Harvest-Home ” in West Dorset, which I had recently attended, and this I now reproduce :

“It was my good fortune to be present in September last at one of those old-fashioned gatherings in the West of Dorset, a harvest-home, and I thought that perhaps an account of such a quaint and time-honoured custom might not be unacceptable to some among the readers of ‘ N. and Q.’, especially as these congenial meetings are becoming scarcer year by year and ere long bid fair to rank amongst the things that have been. Small sums of money are now in many places given to the men, women, and boys instead of the usual supper, a practice that I am sorry to say seems to be on the increase, and which I here offer up my voice to protest against.

” I say ‘sorry’, first, because it denotes a departure from old customs, and, secondly, because the purpose for which the alteration is intended is, it seems to me, but very imperfectly carried out. At the time of such a general holiday in the parish the labourers of one farm do not seem willing to disperse quietly to their own homes and husband the few shillings they may have received as ‘largess’, whilst their fellows are enjoying themselves on another farm ; but rather to keep up a harvest-home of their own in the village ale-house, though, I need scarcely say, not of so orderly a character as that of the bond fide supper ; and which, to tell the truth, they themselves much prefer, for a ‘ Dorsetshire labourer ‘, though he may be poor, is none the less Conservative.
“On the day appointed for the celebration of the harvest, the labourers from the several farms attended afternoon service in the parish church, dressed in their best clothes, the church being decorated in the usually seasonable manner. The entrance-gates of the principal farms were likewise decorated with an arch of evergreen, flowers, corn, etc., crowned with a sickle and scythe swathed in bands of wheat barley, the whole surmounted by appropriate mottoes.

“In the evening tables were laid out in the kitchen of a size sufficient to accommodate the men, women, boys and girls employed on the farm, the ‘ master ‘, assisted by such members of his family as might be, sitting at their head and carving a grand rump of Old English beef.

“As soon as the company had partaken of as much beef and plum-pudding as was considered desirable an adjournment was made to a large tree that stood near the homestead, where the following quaint custom—peculiar, I was informed, to the west of Dorset—took place. (it would seem to be somewhat similiar to the custom of ‘crying the knack’, which obtains to Devon and Cornwall)

“The men formed themselves into a circle, and each taking off his hat and holding it out in front of him, stooped to the ground; then, led by one standing in the centre, chanted the words : ‘ We have ’em ‘ (or ‘ ‘en’). The first word, ‘ We/ is commenced in a very low tone, the men the while slowly and gradually raising themselves up, and so prolonged till they have almost reached their full height. They close the sentence by saying ‘ have ’em ‘ more quickly. This is done three times. They then shout ‘ Huzza ! ‘ once. Again they stoop down and go the same performance ; finishing up this time with two ‘ huzzas’. This is repeated once more, and finally wound up by huzzaing three times. As soon as the men have finished the women come forward and go through the same ceremony. This, when well performed, a not altogether unimpressive or unmusical effect. The words, I believe, bear reference to the conclusion of the harvest and the sheaves of corn being satisfactorily ‘ had ‘ in.

“The discharge of small cannon, (the peculiar care of the boys) likewise gave considerable éclat to the whole proceeding. This over, the party returned to the house and entered upon a course of singing and drinking, not unmixed with dancing in the back kitchen.

“The first song was, of course, in honour of the ‘ meäster ‘, and unenriched by the Dorset vernacular indulged in by the toast-master, was in the following words :—

‘Here’s a health unto our master,
The founder of the feast,
And when that he is dead and gone,
I hope his soul may rest.
I wish all things may prosper,
Whatever he takes in hand.
For we are all his servants
And serve at his command.So drink, boys, drink!
And see that you do not spill.For if you do,You shall drink two,
“Tis by your master’s will.’
“This song is repeated till everybody present has drunk the health.

‘Here’s Mrs’ (or Mr’s) good health !Let the glass go roundAnd the trumpet sound,— Huzza ! huzza ! huzza ! Down fall all the re-bels,We long to see the day,—Con-fusion unto themThat set ’em up again ! Huzza I huzza i huzza !Confusion etc.’

“This, like the last, was repeated till all had drunk.

“Then followed the curious and laughable custom of’ drinking to your love over the left arm ‘. Each man, while the following verse was being sung, was obliged to drain his mug or horn-cup of ale by holding it in his right hand, and passing it outside of and over his left arm, which would be thrown across the chest. Great merriment was afforded when some of the older hands, through age or other infirmities failed to accomplish this in a satisfactory manner. The words sung were the following :—

‘ As I was a-riding over a mountain so highI saw a pretty girl that plea-sed my eye,She plea-sed my eye, but pla-gued my heart;From this cup of liquor we never will part;’Twill do us no good,—’twill do us no harm.”Here’s a health to my love, over left arm, over left arm! “Here’s a health etc.’

“This was continued till all had satisfactorily passed the crucial test. Songs of a more general character and sundry speeches followed; and eventually the proceedings were brought to a close about midnight by the whole company joining in the National Anthem, ‘ God Save the Queen.’ ”

The following version, similar but less ornate, of the ” whooping ” ceremony,—as it was called in the district,—was given me as having been performed at a farmhouse in the same neighbourhood as the last. At the end of the harvest a jar of cider or ale and two small cups were taken just outside the yard, when all the labourers would gather in a circle round the jar, which is presided over by the oldest man amongst them, and, taking off their hats and standing in a stooping position, would bow slowly down to the ground, whilst singing in a low, guttural, drawling tone, ” We-e-e-e have ‘en ! ” They then stand upright again and holloa ” hurrah ” once. This is gone through a second time, when the ” hurrah” is given twice. Again, a third repetition, when three ” hurrahs ” are given. They then have a drink all round; after which they return mostly for songs or dances after supper. I have been told that these cheers were often heard at a distance of a mile or two!

At the time I sent the above account to Notes and Queries I was not acquainted with Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology—or, rather, Stallybrass’s translation of it,—in four volumes, which were not published till 1880-8. After I had read it I was struck by the very strong resemblance to the Dorset ” whooping “, as it is called, that exists in the custom of the people in Lower Saxony invoking their great god Woden at the conclusion of the harvest. Grimm states (i, 154) that it is usual to leave a clump of corn standing in a field to Woden for his horse.

Mr Wellen of Charlton Marshall at a Harvest Festival, taken 1940

Mr Wellen of Charlton Marshall at a Harvest Festival, taken 1940 – DCM © 2015

He then describes (p. 156) a custom in Schaumburg where the people, having finished the mowing of the corn, or having purposely left only a small strip standing which they could cut down at a stroke, then at the finish would raise their implements aloft, beating the blades three times with the strop, while each would spill a small quantity of beer on the ground and then drink himself. They would then wave their hats and beat their scythes three times and cry aloud, ” Wôld-wôld-wôld” which, Grimm says, a Schaumburg man pronounced as ” wauden “. They would then march home shouting and singing. If the ceremony were omitted the next year would bring bad crops of hay and corn.

It is a pity that Grimm did not know of the custom as existing in western Dorsetshire, which I have described above. I wonder whether he would have agreed with the suggestion that I now venture to make, that the Dorset labourers’ cry in this corner of old Wessex of “We hav’en “, repeated three times, is but a survival of the old invocation to the great god Woden of their Saxon ancestors, still continued from time immemorial at these harvest celebrations but of which the real significance and meaning have been lost.

Shortly before I left England in 1889 I was anxious to test this resemblance still further, so I invited certain of the farm labourers belonging to the same West Dorset parish—Symondsbury— in which the ceremony had been performed in 1873, after they had attended the now usual harvest festival service at the old parish church, to do their ” whooping ” on the lawn in front of the Manor House close to the church. They went through it all in much the same way as their predecessors had done, and again the close affinity to what Grimm had related was borne in upon me. Out of compliment to him I added a further Teutonic association that was by no means unacceptable to the performers. I made the men drink the healths from a tall seventeenth century pewter tankard, or loving-cup, with covered lid (of which there were one or two similar ones in the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington), of a capacity of several quarts, which had formerly been the property of some civic company or guild in some German town (to judge from the inscription), this being the first opportunity I had had of putting it to anything approaching its former use. It would be a strange but not inappropriate incident if it should again, after so many years, have assisted in the survival of an ancient Teutonic festivity.

I have since obtained from locally printed sources and otherwise a few songs or verses that were sung at harvest-home gatherings. Several of these, as I have already pointed out, may also have been sung at sheep-shearing feasts in the days when these feasts were more worthy of the name. The main toasts were evidently the same. In particular the one sent by Mr. T. H. Garland to the Dorset County Chronicle (which had reprinted my paper from Notes and Queries), wherein he added that he was a West Dorset man and had for many years witnessed the old customs to which I had alluded.
The following verse appeared in the Bridport News in 1874 as having been sung at the same place as my account referred to:

“When the wheat is all ripe the harvest begin,The farmer the fruits of the earth gather in ;In the mornings as soon as the reap hooks are grindWe repair to the field for to reap and to bind.”

Another couplet ran :—

“When the harvest is over to our master’s we will steer, And wet a good supper with a drink of strong beer.”

The following toast was given by a farm labourer at a harvest home at Blandford in 1849 (” N. & Q.,” Ser. v, x, 306. For a more correctly rhyming Worcestershire variant see the same volume, p. 375) :—

” Drink, boys, drink, and see you do not spill;
If you do you shall drink two,
For ’tis our master’s will.”

“Horses strong, sheep healthy,
Barns full, money plenty.”

A correspondent in Notes and Queries in 1878 (Ser. v, x, 375) speaks to his having heard, some forty years previously, the same refrain

” Drink, boys, drink, and see you do not spill;
If you do you shall drink two,
For ’tis our master’s will.”

at a sheep-shearing feast in the lower part of Dorsetshire, when each man was supplied with a small cup of about the third of a pint to drink the customary healths in.

Forfeits.—Amongst the amusements at harvest home suppers forfeits appear to have been sometimes indulged in (though such games were usually set apart for Christmas), when songs or rhythmic jingles were sung with the object of entrapping the unwary. The following were given me as having been used at harvest homes in the parish of Stoke Abbott, also in West Dorset.

One of the company leads off with the following rhythmic jingle, followed by the others :—

“Green grow the leaves on the hawthorn tree,Some grow high and some grow low; With my ringo and my jingoWe seldom disagree,And the tenor of my song goes merrily— And the tenor of my song goes merrily.”
The leader alone then sings :

” Twenty, nineteen, eighteen—”
The next one in rotation :
” Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen—”
The next, in their order :
” Fourteen, thirteen, twelve—”” Eleven, ten, nine—”” Eight, seven, six—”
The last in rotation chimes in with ” Five, four, three “—and they all add:
“And the tenor of my song goes merrily.”

When this is done the person next to the leader begins it over again, and it goes on as before, except that when he comes to the figures he starts with ” Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen “—the next to him taking it up as before, and so on to the end. This over, the third person in rotation commences the strain, beginning the figures at ” Fourteen, thirteen, twelve “—and so on as before until the whole is exhausted.

Should anyone make a mistake in repeating his portion he must pay forfeit, which, on these occasions, generally consists in being made to drink something.

Here is another one from the same place :—

“O splice the cable-rope,
The rope it is so fine;*
And with a sugar loaf we’ll have
A glass of currant wine ;
And if the wine is sharp
The sugar makes it sweet;
What greater joy in all the world
When two sweethearts do meet!
With my Rider, Ready, Rum,
My Rider, Ready, Rum,
So drink half your liquor, boys,
And say no more than ‘ Mum’.
So drink off your liquor,
boys,And say no more than ‘Mum’!”

  • *Possibly a covert allusion to the excellent quality of the hemp grown in the neighbourhood. So highly was it esteemed that a statute, 21 Henry VIII, provided that cables intended for the use of the Royal Navy should be made from hemp grown within a certain radius of Bridport, within which radius the parish of Stoke Abbott is situated.

The above rhyme is sung by all the company together, after which the leader, and any one who may be initiated in the game, endeavour to entrap the person sitting next them into answering more than the permitted ” Mum ” by accusing him, truly or otherwise, of having made a mistake in singing or in drinking more than half the liquor at the wrong time, so as to entail a forfeit. The verse is then gone through again, and the next person is interrogated with the like object, and so on in rotation until all have been subjected to the ordeal.”

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Apple Tree Wassail – Survival of a Tree Cult

Apple Tree WassailFrom the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 42 1922, an article written by the W. O. Beament, M.A. entitled ‘Apple Tree Wassail: Survival of a Tree Cult’

I propose for the purpose of this paper to consider firstly the ceremonies accompanying the Apple Tree Wassail which are, or were until lately, observed in the South West of England,and secondly to consider certain parallels to the rite which may be found at various stages of the civilisation of Western Europe.

It may then be possible to indicate some connection between the two, and to suggest a theory which accounts for what I believe to be a genuine pre-historic survival on English Soil. At the outset, I ought to explain that the theory which I shall outline at the conclusion of this paper is not intended to be the result of any research. It is simply an indication of the lines along which I believe a possible solution of the problems presented by the Apple Tree Wassail may be found.

At the present day the custom of wassailing the apple trees does not appear to be observed in Dorset; and when I first commenced collecting material for this paper I was not aware that it had been practised in our own county in recent times. However, our Vice- President, Judge Udal, has very kindly forwarded to me an extract from the manuscript of his forthcoming book on Dorset Folklore with permission to make use of it for the purposes of this paper. Judge Udal refers to an article in Folklore for 1918 from which it appears that the ceremony observed in Dorset did not differ in any important particular from those still to be found in the sister county of Somerset. When we turn to the latter county, there is an abundance of material for consideration ; and I propose to take as a representative account, and one which forms an excellent basis for discussion, the description of the ceremony given by Mr. Cecil Sharp in his note to Song 128, Folk Songs, from Somerset, 5th Series.

The rite appears to have been observed at Bratton on the 17th January, and the procedure as described by several witnesses is roughly as follows:

Meeting about seven in the evening, the wassailers proceed to the orchard which is to be the scene of their first celebration, and, forming a ring round one of the oldest of the trees, dance round, singing a particular song, to the words of which I will presently revert. Cider, sometimes warmed, is then thrown upon the tree or poured over the roots to the accompaniment of much shouting, stamping of feet, and firing of guns. Before leaving the tree a piece of toast soaked in cider is placed in the fork of the branches. Mr. Sharp states that, on enquiry of one of the revellers as to what became of the toast, he was informed that ” some say that the birds eat it, but I don’t know.”

There are five points in this ceremony which are worth considering :

  1. The Tree.
  2. The Song and Dance.
  3. The Libation of Cider.
  4. The Noise.
  5. The Offering of Toast

It may be interesting to consider them briefly in detail as they appear to-day.

1. SONG AND DANCE. I cannot obtain any very clear idea of the dance itself. Whatever it may have been in the past, it does not seem to-day to be a set figure; it rather has the nature of a wild gambol round a tree by a number of men joining hands in a ring. Probably the fact that they have already wassailed each other in cider before setting out has some effect upon their gyrations. The words of the song are at the present day more or less doggerel. As given by Mr. Sharp they run as follows:

Old Apple Tree we’ll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
The Lord doth know where we shall be
To be merry another year:
So blow well and bear well
And so merry let us be
Let every man drink up his can
And health to the old Apple Tree.

Then follows a spoken piece, cheering, shouting, stamping and gun-firing. I have come to the conclusion, as a result of comparison between this and similar ceremonies, that the words have in comparatively modern times been substituted for more ancient formula having practically the same meaning.It is perfectly clear that the wish expressed is for a good crop of apples in the ensuing year. It is rather curious that, in the Sedgemoor district, verses of the New Year Wassail Song are added to the Apple Tree Wassail.

2. SHOUTING, GUN-FIRING, ETC. The use of gunpowder, a comparatively modern invention, has led certain correspondents on this subject to suggest that we have a survival of a primitive method of pruning. The theory is that in early clays pruning was accomplished by beating the tree with a stick; and subsequently the firing of shot into the branches was used to obtain the same result. I am inclined myself to think that the gun-firing is merely a method of making a noise. Lieut. Latrobe-Bateman in describing his Congo Explorations in the middle of the last century has noted that natives belonging to the Mohammedan faith fire off guns at certain religious celebrations. In this case he knows that the object is simply that of making a noise. It seems rather more likely that the idea of noise-making should be predominant in a rustic ceremony such as wassailing, rather than that it should be necessary to prc-suppose a primitive method of pruning,for which not only does no evidence exist, but which is more over rather insulting to the intelligence of our ancestors.

3. THE LIBATION. This as it survives scarcely requires any comment. It can best be considered in the next section of the paper.

4. OFFERING OF TOAST. This is undoubtedly a real offering. Mr. Sharp’s informant was clearly of the opinion that it was not eaten by the birds, although twentieth century materialism had made him rather shy of expressing this belief openly.

None of the participants in the ceremony, however, appear to have any very clear idea as to whom the offering was made. It seems that we have here a case in which folk-memory is rapidly failing. Toast is still placed in the branches because it is remembered that once the offering was made to someone or something.

But in a few years, if the ceremony lasts as long, the reason will have been entirely forgotten; and I think this particular part of the rite will disappear entirely or we shall be definitely told that it is intended as an offering to the birds, probably in the hope that they will not attack the crop during the year.

In considering one or two interesting parallels to the Apple Tree Wassail, I should like to begin with a reminder that tree worship still survives in twentieth century England in other forms. The simplest, and the one which comes most readily to mind, is the Maypole dance. The Maypole is usually a dry pole perhaps with a sprig of green at the top, but was once, as Sir James Frazer has pointed out in the Golden Bough, a living tree freshly cut from the forest. It was also not so long ago that the “Jack in the Green” was a well-known figure in village festivities. It is rather curious that, while Sir James Frazer lays great stress upon these two survivals, he does not in the Golden Bough refer to the Apple Tree Wassail.

Bearing in mind then that ceremonies, which at the present time appear to have a value only as burlesque, are none the less religious survivals, we shall he less surprised to find that our West Country Apple Tree Wassail has behind it a long and honourable history. I must apologise for proceeding to state one or two facts which are probably well known to most of those present to-day, but my excuse is that their clue remembrance is essential to the considerations I wish to advance.

It must be kept in mind that religions, and especially primitive religions as distinct from magical cults, fall generally speaking into one of two classes they are connected with earth spirits or with sky gods. Without being irreverent, it may be stated that Christianity, following its predecessor Judaism, falls into the latter class; but this class is, at any rate in Western Europe, by no means the older. Men worshipped spirits of the earth before they worshipped spirits of the sky.

If one may make an extremely rough generalisation of the work of archaeologists in the classical lands of the Mediterranean, it may be laid down that the first peoples of that region of whom we have knowledge were agriculturists who worshipped earth deities, and buried their dead ; while, at a later date, they were encroached upon by, and ultimately fused with, pastoral invaders from the north, a taller fairer race who worshipped sky and storm deities and practised cremation. If in the light of some of these researches we consider the various points of the Apple Tree Wassail we shall begin to see some connection between our folk custom and the religions of the ancient world.

The ritual song and the ritual dance are both expressions of the same idea. The dance expresses the result in action, the song is an expression of the wish in words. Thus the first men to dance round the tree, in the hope that a crop might be secured to them, were performing in their early world a species of primitive ballet, endeavouring to depict in action and to sing in words the ideas of life and fertility; they imitated the desired result by showing themselves in possession of health, vigour, strength and agility.

The problem that presents itself at this point is: why they should dance round the tree ? The answer is that, just as gods have been made in the form of men and in the form of animals, so we are beginning to learn they have also been made in the form of plants. The tree is, if it may be so expressed, a kind  of super-plant. It has an intimate connection with the earth. It towers in the air and it is strong and, generally speaking, has a long life. It is extremely likely that originally the ceremony which we are considering was not performed round an Apple Tree at all, but round some forest tree, in all likelihood an Oak. This is perfectly easy to understand if it be remembered that primitive man has connected the idea of life, as expressed in plant or animal, not merely with the plants which he eats or the animal which he uses for food, but with those which are not good for this purpose. Thus we have Snake Tribes and Rat

Tribes when, generally speaking, the snake or rat is not a common article of diet. Totemism is far older and has exercised far more influence in religious developement than any idea of prayer for actual food. Thus assuming that originally our tree was a forest tree, that the religious idea grew weaker and weaker, and that people began to query why they did this thing, the ceremony, to make it appear more rational, would be transferred to a tree whose crop was actually of value as food, and in such a district as South-west England the natural tree to select would be the apple tree.

In the libation of cider we have an obvious magical survival. The cider is simply apple-juice, the blood of the tree, drawn from it last year. It may be assumed still to contain the life of the tree and is, therefore, poured back upon the roots or upon the trunk during the dead season of the winter in order that the tree may once more blossom and bear fruit. It carries from one season to another life and growth.

In this connection it may be interesting to note that the sacred tree and the sacred pillar are considered to be merely two aspects of the same thing. The tree is a living sacred pillar, a pillar is a petrified tree. Each is the house of a god or spirit, the place of its indwelling, a central point between the spiritual and material worlds.

Jacob, when he set up the Stone of Bethel, poured on it .wine and oil in consecration and named it the “House of God,” thereby indicating that for him at least it w r as the dwelling-place of the God of his fathers whom he proposed to serve.

The cider poured on the tree is not a drink for the spirit dwelling there. It is a rather more magical rite, indicating that the celebrant is trying to bring about a desired result by assuming it done. He pours cider because he wants cider next year.

In the sacred dance we have imitated the desired result; in the song we have expressed our wishes and hopes in words; by pouring cider we have done our best by physical means to secure that a comparatively dead tree will come to life. All this belongs to a very .early stage in religious thought, when gods and spirits are scarcely as yet conceived as such. Primitive man thinks not so much of deities as of divinities vague, half understood forces at work something like that which the natives of Melanesia call ” mana.” And this word is so expressive that it has passed into current anthropological jargon. Thus we have hitherto dealt only with forces which are more or less impersonal and can be controlled by magic, spirits not requiring to be sought in prayer because they are not regarded as possessing definite personal wills. It is the great distinction between magic and religion as we know it. With the former it is a matter of knowing how to do the right thing, while the latter is a question of personal relationship with a being. Now the noise brings us to the stage in which a being is introduced.

The shouting, stamping, and gun-firing, while they may in some measure express the joy of life, yet none the less are intended to awaken the spirit in the tree who has fallen asleep during the winter and must be aroused in good time if he is to do his work in the coming spring. Elijah’s taunt to the prophets of Baal was not merely sarcastic : to those w r ho heard it meant something real. They were used to shouting to wake up their god when they had any particularly heavy work on hand for him to do. So the Wassailers shout to arouse the spirit of the tree.

The toast in the branches takes us one step further. Toast which is intended to disappear is obviously of no use unless it is consumed by somebody or something, and we have here an instance of the actual offering made to a god or spirit. It is rather interesting to query whether it is given in order that the god may do something in return, or as a bribe to induce him to refrain from doing harm. As a matter of fact in early religion God and the Devil are very  much one and the same. It might be noticed in this connection that the vegetation spirit in Syrian mythology is Adonis, and his connection with Aphrodite is a matter of common knowledge. Aphrodite is always accompanied by birds her doves have become a proverb. Is it then too fantastic to suggest that here in

Central Somerset we have a direct survival of rites which in the golden days of Greece centred round the worship of the Maiden of the Sea-Foam?

I have already hinted at what is possibly an explanation of the survival of such rites as tree-cults in Britain. There seems very little doubt that such cults were originally the property of a people who were agriculturists, whose religion was the worship of earth divinities and who buried their dead. We know as a matter of certainty that this was the case in pre-historic times in Greece and other lands around the Mediterranean.

The early culture of Crete, of Mycenae and of the traditional site of Troy has afforded abundant evidence of the fact that the phenomena which I have just mentioned occurred together. Moreover from the same sources we know that at some time a pastoral people worshipping Olympian deities came down upon the Mediterranean from the North and were fused with the original inhabitants of the basin, the result of which fusion can be seen in the strangely assorted collection of gods and goddesses which make up the Hellenic and Latin Pantheons.

Now it is a well-known fact that, even when one race is conquered by another, the ideas and institutions of the conquered survive with strange persistence.

Thus there will be no cause for surprise if it be suggested that vegetation cults have persisted from very early times, and through various stages of civilisation, down to the modern world. It remains for us now to endeavour to connect the known facts of the Mediterranean area with the survivals which we find in our own country. I would suggest as a basis for further investigation a theory somewhat on these lines:

Tradition and modern research alike lead us to believe that, when the Mediterranean race was squeezed between the mountains and the sea by the increasing pressure of the northern invaders, an outlet of escape was found in the far west, along the Spanish shores and into Gaul. The peculiar religious observances of an agricultural people can be traced along this route and into Britain. The traces of Neolithic culture in this country show that we are dealing with a people whose physical features, as far as can be ascertained, resemble those which Sergi has ascribed to the Mediterranean race; a people whose religious observances, so far as any evidence remains to us, were akin to those of primitive dwellers in the Mediterranean basin, and whose belief in future life and survival after death was connected with the under-world rather than with a heaven in the sky. I would suggest then that, in common with other survivals of tree-worship and vegetation cult, the Apple Tree Wassail is a survival of that common stock of religious experience possessed by those early inhabitants of Southern and Western Europe whom tradition has called in various places by the names of Pelasgians, Ligurians and Iberians.

These people, whom we know to have contributed to later Greek religion those elements dealing with the under-world, the gods of the sea, the vegetation demons and those divine or semi-divine beings who possess the power of appearing in the form of beasts such as Dionysus would, as long as they remain agriculturists, practise their particular cults; and that these would, moreover, be learnt by any races who came into contact with them who wished to change from the wandering pastoral life to the more settled occupation of agriculture. Primitive man knew very well that it was useless to carry on an occupation until he had first of all put himself right with the spirits whose special concern that occupation was. This fact alone would explain how the ceremony could survive through various changes of civilisation and religion, and would also explain why so many of these customs have been able to make honourable terms even with triumphant Christianity.

The Apple Tree Wassail is one of the more obscure of these ancient rites, but it is none the less interesting, and I have endeavoured to put forward an analysis of its elements and a suggestion as to the lines on which further investigation may be pursued.

Note.  An article in Folk-lore, Volume XXXI, page 307, by Miss M. A. Berkeley, in commenting on some of the conclusions reached by Miss J. L. Weston in her work From Ritual to Romance, points out that Avalon in Afalon has the traditional interpretation of the ” Isle of Apples,” and that Mr. Cook has in the “European Sky and Tree God ” connected the ” Apple tree of Avallach ” the “god” of Avalon with magic trees of Irish legends and with the grove of Nemi. After shewing the connection of the Holy Thorn with sacred trees in general Miss Berkeley proceeds to set out evidence for the existence of an important and widely-known cult of the life principle at Glastonbury in early, and even in historic, times. The whole of the article is most suggestive in connection with the persistence of the apple cult in Somerset in modern times.