While Brits will know it only too well, overseas readers may be unaware that – due to the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the UK is in the middle of an energy crisis. Prices have gone through the roof, and we are warned that energy rationing, through a rolling programme of power cuts, is a real possibility if there is a prolonged cold snap later this winter.
Everyone is being urged to be energy aware, and to cut down on power consumption if at all possible. But you’d never know that there was any problem at all, if you were basing your opinion on the Festival of Lights and Lanterns at Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP).
As I’ve written before, I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but YWP seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. But conservation costs money, so managers are happy to embrace initiatives that will attract paying members of the public through the gates. And what better way, at this festive time of year, than to flood the place with countless coloured lights?
We went to last year’s Festival of Lights and Lanterns, and had a great evening. It’s not the most obvious way to celebrate Christmas, but it worked for me and countless others too. Giant, glowing coloured lanterns were distributed throughout the Park, representing some of the critters living there, including polar bears, tigers, giraffes and okapi, and a few others that just wouldn’t feel quite at home, such as whales! There were even a few dinosaurs, poignant reminders of the world we have lost.
The regular critters – tigers, giraffes and the like – were back in force for this winter’s Festival. It was good to see these old friends, and also pleasing to note that last year’s favourites had been recycled and not simply trashed. But the big change, for the 2022/23 season, was in the population of dinosaurs, which seems to have exploded over the last few months!
And don’t the visitors love them, T-Rex and Triceratops, and all their brutish buddies? Children looked on in awe, and adults lapped it up too, a welcome opportunity to escape – if only for an hour or two – the stresses and strains of life in the UK at the end of 2022. Just for a short while it was possible to forget the energy crisis, and bathe irresponsibly in the light of a thousand colourful lanterns. But spare a thought, if you will, for YWP’s Director of Finance…he may be in for a few sleepless night when the Park’s next electricity bill arrives!
Chatsworth House, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, is one of England’s foremost stately homes. It’s run as a business, depending for its survival largely on the income it generates by welcoming paying members of the public to explore the stunning house and massive ornamental gardens. As with so many visitor attractions, the Christmas season is vitally important for the health of the enterprise. This is even more true in 2022, as Chatsworth seeks to recover from the damage inflicted upon the business by Covid.
And when we visited a couple of weeks ago visitors were out in force to experience this year’s Christmas extravaganza. Here’s what the website told us to expect:
Deep Midwinter: A Nordic Christmas at Chatsworth brings to life the Christmas folklore and traditions of the Arctic and Nordic regions through a series of themed roomscapes. Sculpted ‘ice’ walls, tranquil pine forests, lanterns, traditional Nordic Christmas decorations and foliage foraged from woodlands and hedgerows across the estate evoke the sights, sounds and scents of the natural world at wintertime…
Our Nordic theme continues into the garden with an enchanting Christmas light trail. Experience our ‘northern lights’ over the Canal Pond, let colour guide you along Broad Walk into a glade of glowing lights and, for the first time, see the Maze illuminated and filled with festive music.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But sadly, it didn’t live up to expectations. In 2019, the last time we visited Chatsworth at Christmas, we were blown away by decorations on the theme of “a land far, far away.” This year, however, we were distinctly underwhelmed: the Nordic associations pretty much passed us by, and the decorations lacked impact. Worse still, we paid nearly £30 (USD 37) per head for the privilege.
Some grand stately homes in other parts of the country charge quite a bit more for their Christmas celebration – Blenheim Palace, for example – but, if recent television coverage is to be believed, they offer a lot more too. Clearly, £30 per head isn’t a fortune, but that’s not the point. The question is, does it represent value for money, particularly as we are currently in the midst of a nationwide “cost of living crisis”? I don’t think so.
Don’t get me wrong, our visit wasn’t a total waste of time. Parts of the garden lights trail were pretty good, while the best of the decorated rooms of the House were very well done. And if you’d never been to Chatsworth before the whole show probably made a good, although very crowded, introduction to the House’s splendours. But we know the place well and – based on what we saw in 2019, and what we paid for our tickets this time – we expected rather more. The photos I’ve used to illustrate this piece feature the highlights, but the majority of “the experience” was a lot more mundane.
Maybe they had a limited budget in 2022, as a result of Covid’s impact on revenue streams? Or did they spread their resources too thinly, by having “an enchanting lights trail” in the gardens as well as decorating the House (in 2019, the Christmas extravaganza was limited just to the House, and didn’t extend into the gardens). But I can’t help worrying that Chatsworth’s trading on its name, making a calculated underinvestment in this seasonal attraction on the assumption that people will turn up anyway, just because it’s Chatsworth?
Top left: The Painted Hall. Top right: Another room, another group of trees, and a stray speaker playing Christmas music! Middle right: The Library. Bottom: The Chapel.The golden statue between the trees is by the notorious contemporary British sculptor Damien Hirst.
If so, I fear that may be a bit short-sighted, as there are plenty of other stately homes around here that also put on a show at Christmas. People who shared our disappointment with Chatsworth’s efforts this time may well choose next year to get their seasonal cheer somewhere else, somewhere offering the prospect of seeing more while paying less.
Hopefully, this is a one off, and Chatsworth will be back on form in time for Christmas 2023. Until this year they’ve had a good track record, so we’ll probably give them another chance. I’ll report back 12 months from now!
Although Burton Agnes may sound like the upper crust villain of an Agatha Christie novel, the reality is altogether more interesting. Built between 1598 and 1610 near the village of Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Burton Agnes is a magnificent Elizabethan mansion that’s been associated with the same family for over 400 years.
Although the Hall is now managed by a charitable trust, the family still lives there. To help cover the cost of its upkeep, paying visitors are invited to have a poke around this Grade I Listed architectural masterpiece. And, inevitably, the period before Christmas is a great time to pep up the income stream.
This, of course, is nothing unusual. Up and down the land the good, the bad and the ugly of British stately homes open their doors to the Great British Public at this time of year, anxious to milk the cash cow that is Christmas.
Some do a great job, investing heavily to decorate their mansions with festive frivolities that are sure to get their visitors into the mood for Christmas and, hopefully, will encourage them to return the next year. Others, I suspect, do the absolute minimum that they calculate is necessary to prevent the paying public demanding its money back.
Burton Agnes, which we visited a couple of weeks ago, felt like good value for money. The place was tastefully, but not excessively decked out in seasonal finery. They say that “less is more”, and whoever planned the Christmas decorations here clearly understands the benefits of measured restraint in such matters. The seasonal adornments seemed in tune with their setting rather than simply overwhelming it, which has been the case in some of the places we’ve visited over the years
To be honest, I would normally find it difficult to feel festive in mid-November, but by the time we left Burton Agnes I could happily have polished off a plateful of mince pies and knocked out a verse or two of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Roll on Christmas, I’m ready for you now!
The White Drawing Room
And, just as important, our visit to see the Christmas decorations also served as an introduction to a truly spectacular building. The Great Hall is just that, a masterpiece of plasterwork and panelling. The Long Gallery, with its barrelled ceiling, is light, airy, elegant (and very, very long!), while the White Drawing Room is comfortably tasteful. Although the decorations were great to see, the quality of the building itself shone through clearly.
Above: The Red Drawing Room. Below: The Long Gallery
Burton Agnes has been described by the author Simon Jenkins as ‘the perfect English house’ and as one of the twenty best English houses. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that there’s lot to admire in it. Mrs P and I have agreed that we’ll make a return visit at another time of year when the Christmas decorations have been removed, so we can get to know it a bit better.
One of the highlights of our recent trip “down south” was a day spent at The Sculpture Park on the outskirts of Farnham in the Surrey Hills. Home to several hundred sculptures for sale (or could it be thousands…who really knows?) dotted around ten acres / four hectares of scenic woodland and lakes, it’s a mind-blowing place to spend a day. I’ll write about it again in future posts, but with Halloween just around the corner I thought I’d focus on Wilfred Pritchard’s lovely bones.
You see, sculptor Wilfred Pritchard appears obsessed with skeletons, and good fun they are too!
A number of Pritchard’s works can be found at The Park, which is probably not surprising as he owns the place under his real name of Eddie Powell! And who can blame him for displaying plenty of his own wares? Born in 1950, the Welshman clearly has a prodigious talent as well as a fertile and somewhat macabre sense of humour.
Cast in bronze, Pritchard’s skeletons are to be seen enjoying themselves in a variety of ways, dancing, performing gymnastic routines, riding a penny-farthing bicycle, playing a tuba and pulling a garden roller. They seem to be having a great time, although the same can’t been said for the poor skeleton whose leg is caught in the jaws of a man-trap!
Pritchard’s skeletons might be seen as emblematic of Halloween, the time of year when some believe the boundary between this world and the next becomes especially thin. They offer us a benign, stress-free encounter with our own mortality: as they are now, so shall we one day become, living the good life in the after-life.
There’s no great depth of meaning here but the lovely bones are, quite simply, a load of fun. I found it impossible not chuckle at their antics, nor to marvel at the imagination of the man who created them.
Top Left: “Hard Labour”. Top Middle: “Brassed Away”. Top Right: “Man Trap”. Bottom Left: “Back Flip”. Bottom Right: “Acrobats”.
If money were no object, I’d invest in one of Pritchard’s works. I’d display it outside Platypus Towers over Halloween, giving the neighbours both a cheap thrill and a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with a piece of genuine high-quality art. However, these skeletal masterpieces cost anywhere between about £10,000 and £30,000 (USD 12,000 – 35,000) plus tax, so maybe I’ll give it a miss for now. But if my number ever comes up on the lottery, who knows…
Art comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s very surprising, occasionally awe-inspiring. Take Raging Bull, for example, the 10 metres high sculpture that starred in the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony earlier in the year. Weighing in at 2.5 tonnes the armoured bull has a massive wow factor, so when we visited Birmingham a few weeks ago to see Chris de Burgh in concert we were determined to spend a spare morning tracking down this modern masterpiece of mechanical public art.
The sculpture is made mostly out of machinery sourced from factories in and around Birmingham, and is intended as a symbol of the city’s journey through a turbulent past to the present day. It was designed, built, and mechanised by a team of around 60 people from UK-based special effects company Artem. The head, legs and tail can be manoeuvred by a crew of puppeteers and technicians, aided by a tractor unit cunningly concealed beneath the body. It can also breathe smoke and flash its eyes red. It is, as today’s kids would probably tell you, proper awesome!
Unsurprisingly, Raging Bull made a huge impression when he entered the arena at the opening of the Commonwealth Games, striding majestically across the running track towards the centre of the stadium. But he has a softer side too, as another YouTube video demonstrates:
But what is surprising, however, is how those in positions of power totally failed to predict the likely public impact of this colossal mechanical sculpture. No provision was made to put it on permanent display after the Games had ended, and Raging Bull was destined for the scrapyard.
However, when Brummies – that is, the people of Birmingham – learned of his intended fate there was an outpouring of protest, in part no doubt because the city has a long association with bulls. Birmingham’s primary retail complex, the Bullring, is built on land where – between the 16th and late 18th centuries – bulls were baited prior to slaughter in the erroneous belief that this would tenderise their meat. Thankfully this barbaric practice is now outlawed, but echoes of it survive in the name of the modern shopping centre (mall) and in the bronze bull statue that was erected there in 2003.
In addition, Raging Bull was widely seen by locals as a positive symbol of their – and, indeed their city’s – qualities of determination, persistence and strength. Brummies felt they could relate to him and perceived him as something to be proud of, to treasure even. So, when more than 10,000 people signed up to a campaign to save him, it became clear that a rescue mission was required.
To buy a bit of time while a plan was worked out, after the Games ended he was moved temporarily to Centenary Square. This was where Mrs P and I were able to see him, albeit as a static work of art rather than a walking, smoking, glowing monster. Never mind, he was magnificent just the same.
At the time of writing a final decision on just where Raging Bull will spend the rest of his days has yet to be made. It appears that his huge bulk, as well as the need to protect him from inclement weather, is presenting a few challenges! An indoor home of generous proportions is clearly required.
Raging Bull was removed from Centenary Square at the end of September, and for now languishes in an abandoned carpark next to a portable toilet, under the watchful eye of a security guard! Things may currently look bleak, but the city authorities are adamant that his future is assured. They’d better be true to their word. Although a bit unconventional, Raging Bull is a wonderful work of art, an inspiring creation that we simply cannot afford to lose.
Who doesn’t love a dinosaur? Big, fierce and scary, they capture the imaginations of young and old alike, their admirers revelling in the fact that although dinosaurs ruled the Earth for millions of years there’s not much risk of bumping into one while out doing the shopping or walking the dog. Except that wasn’t quite true in Norwich earlier this year, when the streets of Norfolk’s only city were awash with the scariest dino of all, the terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex.
OK, it’s true, the many T-Rex we saw roaming the streets of Norwich a few weeks ago weren’t quite on the scale of their Jurassic predecessors, being just shy of two metres in height and weighing in at a modest 80kg. But although just slimmed down versions of the real – but long extinct – thing, they definitely drew in the crowds.
The Norwich dinosaur trail featured 55 Tyrannosaurus Rex sculptures decorated by around 50 professional and amateur artists, of whom 13 had never painted a sculpture before. Plainly this isn’t high art, but it sure brings a smile to the face.
Mrs P and I spent a couple of days exploring Norwich city centre tracking the dinosaurs down, and it was great to see so many kids – big and small! – being excited and inspired by them, and taking endless selfies in front of them.
The trail also encouraged a sense of community and common purpose. Several times we fell into conversation with total strangers, comparing notes on our favourite sculptures and sharing information on where some of the more elusive specimens could be found. We also took the time to tell our new friends about a similar festival in our local city last year, when Derby hosted an impressive Ram Trail.
Left: ” Sirdavidasaurus rex” by Faye Rackham celebrates the life and work of famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Top right: “B-Rex” by Illona Clark draws inspiration from bees, which play a vital role in pollinating plants and keeping food on our tables. Bottom right: “The Golden King” by Katy Stevens.
Norwich’s dinosaur trail delivered on so many levels. It was organised by Break, an East Anglian regional children’s care charity which is seeking to achieve “the best outcomes for young people on the edge of care, in care and moving on from care.” Although access to the dinosaur trail was free, a number of initiatives directly linked with it helped raise much-needed funds for this worthy organisation.
“Afternoon Tea-Rex” by Mik Richardson. Celebrating a quaint English tradition, Afternoon Tea-Rex wears his blue gingham waistcoat and tiny black bowtie with pride. He has a three-tiered cake stand laden with delicious goodies balanced on his head, a tray bearing teacups and a teapot in his hand, and a giant cherry on his back.
Break worked in collaboration with Wild in Art, which runs public art events in the UK and across the world, events “that entertain, enrich, inform and leave a lasting legacy.” Well, they certainly achieved that in Norwich, and also in Derby last year when they masterminded the Ram Trail that I referred to earlier.
“Prideasaurus” by Martin Wall. Covered from head to toe in sparkling crystals, Prideasaurus is described as a celebration of diversity, equality and inclusivity.
In addition, the Norwich trail provided opportunities for artists, in particular local artists, to create works that showcased their talents. And, crucially, it attracted people to visit the city centre and spend a bit of money there. These included both locals, and visitors – like Mrs P and I – from other parts of the country.
“Lost Holmes” by Sally Adams is inspired by the fusion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes with his tale of the ‘Lost World’, in which dinosaurs are the stars of the show
At a time when many businesses are struggling with the longer-term impacts of Covid and the horrific surge in energy prices, the extra business generated by the intrepid dinosaur hunters must have been most welcome.
“Arcadia” by Dandelion Mosaics. Arcadia is described as a mosaic masterpiece intended to depict a tree growing from a seed and showing how it is a transformation only made possible by the sun.
But most important of all the trail was a lot of fun, and don’t we all need some of that right now! Without exception, the vividly coloured dinosaurs brightened up their surroundings. Many were highly creative, and some were delightfully witty. A few hinted at deeper meanings, but the message common to all of them was simply this: art is fun, so come along and enjoy!
Top left: “Doodling Dino” by Esme Taylor. Doodling Dino is covered with doodles of Norfolk, including landscapes, heritage sites, amusement parks and other iconic locales. Bottom left: “Roary” by Caroline Carty, inspired by classic board games, card games, collectables and video games. Right: Feline-osaur by Ella Goodwin is cat-lovers dream, covered head to toe with friendly furry felines.
Sadly, the dinosaur trail is over. T-Rex sculptures have been rounded up from all over Norwich, and have been corralled somewhere safe. Before the end of the month these will be auctioned off to raise additional funds for Break. With luck some of them will be bought by local businesses and community organisations, and hopefully these will remain on display for dinosaur fans and public art enthusiasts of all ages to enjoy for many years to come.
We first visited Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP) a few months after I retired, and have returned several times since I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but the place seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. I’ll write more about some of these conservation projects later in the year.
To help raise the money needed to care for its animals YWP is always looking for new ways to encourage visitors. Last year we’d planned to visit the Park’s Light and Lantern Festival held around Christmas, but Covid restrictions got in the way. This year the restrictions have been, well, less restrictive…but the weather was miserable throughout December, so we gave it a miss.
Finally, last week, conditions improved and we made the decision to hot-foot it 45 miles (72km) up the M1 to the outskirts of Doncaster to catch the Festival before it ends in mid-January. It was definitely worth the trip, as Mrs P’s photos show. With the exception of one hyena, which was racing madly around its spacious enclosure like Usain Bolt in his prime, living animals were notable by their absence. I suspect they were all sleeping peacefully in their dens and nests, blissfully unaware of the numerous visitors trekking round the Park, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the spectacular illuminations.
The lanterns celebrate many of the animals living at the Park – including lions, leopards and okapi – and some that don’t. A T-Rex and sundry other dinosaurs paid homage to animals that none of us will ever see in the flesh. Let’s hope that the conservation initiatives supported by YWP, and similar bodies throughout the UK and beyond, mean that the species currently living there won’t suffer a similar fate to that of the dearly departed dinos.
The Christmas season seems to have been with us forever. Pubs and restaurants have been promoting their festive menus for months. For several weeks shops have been cluttered with seasonal promotions. And Christmas trees are springing up all over the place, in public spaces, shops and windows all over town.
The link between evergreen plants, including fir trees, and mid-winter festivals pre-dates Christianity. It reflects our ancestors’ conviction that, even on the darkest of days, better times and the green shoots of spring are just around the corner.
The Christmas tradition of bringing fir trees into the home and decorating them appears to have developed in the 16th century, in the area of Europe we now know as Germany. However it didn’t catch on in the UK until the middle of the 19th century.
The sudden rise in the popularity of Christmas trees here was down to the royal family, which had historic links with Germany. These were boosted in 1841 when Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert, who had fond memories of Christmas trees from his childhood.
In 1848 the Illustrated London News reported enthusiastically on the Christmas trees Victoria and Albert had put up at Windsor Castle. It also featured on its front cover an illustration of a cluster of happy royals admiring their biggest and best tree. The paper was widely read in well-to-do circles in and around London, and other newspapers also picked up on its story.
It soon became widely known just what the royals were up to, and at a time when it was fashionable amongst the wealthier classes to copy the lifestyle and habits of royalty, Christmas trees became all the rage. But only, of course, amongst those sections of the population with money to acquire them and the space to display them.
In time the fashion trickled down through the social hierarchy until just about everyone in the country aspired to celebrate Our Lord’s birthday by chopping down a poor, defenceless little fir tree and disfiguring it with gaudily tasteless decorations. Bah, humbug!
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Please forgive the previous paragraph… I jest, of course. In fact, Mrs P and I do rather like Christmas trees, although at Platypus Towers we make do with an artificial one to avoid the carpet being knee-deep in pine needles before Twelfth Night. So to get into the Christmas spirit, a couple of weeks ago we took a trip to the north of our home county of Derbyshire to visit the Festival of Christmas Trees at the parish church of St Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield.
We discovered that the church was playing host to around 120 Christmas trees donated and decorated by local businesses, community organisations, service providers and sports clubs. Of course, the motivation of those providing the trees wasn’t entirely selfless: promotion of their products, services and causes appeared to be the name of the game in most cases.
But it doesn’t pay to be churlish. Plenty of folk just like us were also wandering happily through the church that Thursday morning, admiring the imagination and inventiveness of the people behind the various Christmas tree creations. It’s been a difficult year for most of us, although perhaps not quite as grim as 2020, and the Festival of Christmas Trees felt like a good attempt to raise community spirits, to bring people together and to encourage everyone to look forward to more cheerful times ahead. I’m pleased we made the effort to attend.
Yesterday – 5th January – was 12th Night, the last of the 12 Days of Christmas. It is traditionally marked by a range of festivities, many involving the consumption of food or drink in various forms and copious quantities. Wassailing is a practice belonging to this tradition, and dates back many hundreds of years.
According to Anglo-Saxon lore, at the beginning of each year the lord of the manor would greet his assembled subjects with the toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health.” In response his followers would proclaim drinc hael, or “drink well.” Toasts duly completed, all parties would then get down to some serious boozing.
Clearly it’s just a small step, linguistically speaking, from the first of these Anglo-Saxon proclamations of good cheer to the word wassail that we use today. But just to confuse things a little there are two types of wassailing. House Wassailing involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and offering the occupants a swig of their brew in return for a material reward, often financial. In contrast, Orchard Wassailing is a distinctly pagan ceremony concerning itself with the blessing of fruit trees.
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The great and the good usually played along with house wassailing, recognising that a bit of seasonal generosity dispensed with a tolerant smile would enhance their image. However things sometimes got out of hand, with rowdy gangs of youths gaining entry to the homes of wealthy neighbours and demanding free food and drink as the price of moving on to torment someone else instead. We have a word for that sort of thing today: it’s called extortion, and the law takes a dim view of it.
Mostly, however, wassailing was conducted in good humour on both sides. Many fine wassailing songs have survived in the folk tradition, including the Gower Wassail from the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. The lyrics – shown below – illustrate how the relationship between the parties was meant to play out:
A-wassail, a-wassail throughout all the town
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown
Our wassail is made of the good ale and cake
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best you can bake
Our wassail is made of the elderberry bough
And so my good neighbours we'll drink unto thou
Besides all on earth, you have apples in store
Pray let us come in for it's cold by the door
There's a master and a mistress sitting down by the fire
While we poor wassail boys stand out in the mire
Come you pretty maid with your silver headed pin
Pray open the door and let us come in
It's we poor wassail boys so weary and cold
Please drop some small silver into our bowl
And if we survive for another new year
Perhaps we may call and see who does live here
We know by the moon that we are not too soon
And we know by the sky that we are not too high
And we know by the stars that we are not too far
And we know by the ground that we are within sound
We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear
So that we may have cider when we call next year
And where you have one barrel we hope you'll have ten
So that we may have cider when we call again
There are countless recorded versions of the Gower Wassail. I’m particularly fond of this one, by the ephemeral Derbyshire folk band Cupola Ward. Listen to them perform Gower Wassail by clicking on the YouTube link below:
House Wassailing is a thing of the past, and rarely if ever happens these days. However, it has morphed into another form in which groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. And in the words of one of those carols – We Wish You a Merry Christmas – there is a hint of the extortion into which wassailing sometimes descended, when the singers demand “now give us some figgy pudding,” and then threaten “we won’t go until we’ve got some!”
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Although House Wassailing survives only in Christmas carolling, Orchard Wassailing is alive and well in those parts of England that have a tradition of making cider, and in some parts of the USA and Canada too. If you search YouTube you can find various short films capturing modern celebrations of Orchard Wassailing. This one is informative as well as entertaining.
In the Orchard Wassailing tradition, participants drink and sing to the health of an orchard’s apple trees with the intention of encouraging a bumper autumn harvest. Although this can take many forms, some of the standard elements are as follows.
The wassailers select one tree in the orchard, usually the biggest or the oldest, to be the focus of the ceremony. They also choose, from amongst their number, a queen to carry out certain ceremonial duties. The participants process through the orchard and around the chosen tree. Songs are sung, blessings are proclaimed, and the wassail queen hangs from one of the tree’s branches a slice of toast soaked in cider. The intention is to attract good spirits, or possibly robins as these are regarded as lucky birds.
Having duly invited benevolent spirits to appear, malevolent forces are driven away by shouting and the banging together of pots and pans. Then the tree is given a drink of mulled cider.
Inevitably, after the tree has had its fill there is still some alcohol left, at which point the wassailers selflessly help out by knocking it back themselves. They also sing a few jolly songs, encouraging the tree to be a prolific producer of apples in the year ahead. The orchard owner may also get involved, rewarding the revellers with some form of warm, spiced alcoholic beverage from a communal wassail bowl or cup.
By the end of the proceedings everyone’s feeling suitably merry, and it’s only the tree that won’t wake up with a headache in the morning!
Although house and orchard wassailing differ in their origins and underlying purpose, it’s interesting to see how they overlap. Look again at the the Gower Wassail lyrics above, and note that although this song is clearly designed to be sung at a wealthy man’s door with the intention of financial gain (“Please drop some small silver into our bowl“), the singers also express enthusiasm for a bountiful apple harvest in the the autumn (“We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear / So that we may have some cider when we call next year.”)
In the modern parlance I suppose you would say that – in pursuit of merriment and material advancement – singers of the Gower Wassail were covering all the bases. And who can blame them, life’s way too short to be shy in coming forward.
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Folk traditions and folk music aren’t static, so it should come as no surprise that in the hands of gifted exponents the wassail tradition continues to evolve. Mrs P and I have recently started listening to the music of Vicki Swann and Jonny Dyer, and a couple of weeks ago treated ourselves to a live gig on Zoom. One of the songs they performed that evening was the Essex Wassail, which they wrote as recently as 2012 “based on all the Wassails that we could find.” You can find the lyrics here, and to hear Vicki and Jonny performing their wassail song simply follow the YouTube link below. Enjoy!
As December rolls on we finally get around to planning our Christmas day. It doesn’t take long. Although government rules would allow us to “bubble” with Mrs P’s family we’ve opted not to do so: with vaccinations on the horizon, why take risks that could undermine the sacrifices we’ve all made this year? And as far as dinner is concerned there’s not a lot to plan – at the end of a year like no other, one thing will remain the same. On Christmas Day roast turkey will once again be the star of the show.
Turkeys first arrived in England in 1526, when Yorkshire-born voyager William Strickland acquired six birds from Native American traders and sold them at Bristol market for tuppence each. At that time the wealthy treated themselves to goose at Christmas, or maybe a boar’s head, while peasants scraped by with whatever meagre fare they could afford.
Taking time off from bedding mistresses and beheading wives, King Henry VIII is said to be the first Englishman to have eaten turkey for his Christmas dinner. The evidence for this is scanty, although a man who spent so much of his life pulling crackers would doubtless have welcomed such a substantial meal to bolster his virility.
Despite royal patronage the popularity of turkeys at Christmas grew only slowly. Even in the 19th century turkey was not the most popular Christmas roast, because of its relatively high cost. In northern England the wealthy favoured roast beef while in the south they preferred goose. Poorer families often had to make do with rabbit, or even worse.
Christmas is a family time and turkeys are family sized, so as disposable income increased after World War II more families began to treat themselves to a Big Bird as the centrepiece of their seasonal feast. Meanwhile the growing availability of refrigerators also encouraged consumers to think big. By the 21st century England at least 80% of Christmas roast dinners would feature turkey, with many of us eating leftovers for several days afterwards in curries, soups and sandwiches.
Eating roast turkey for Christmas is a peculiarly British habit. Although it’s not unknown in some other English-speaking countries, it hasn’t really caught on elsewhere. Fish, shellfish, ham, beef, pork and wild game are all Christmas day favourites in one country or another.
Curiously, in Japan, Kentucky Fried Chicken is said to be a popular Christmas dinner, a tradition dating from a big 1974 marketing campaign called “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (“Kentucky for Christmas!”) The attraction of KFC at Christmas reportedly lasts to this day, causing some people to order their boxes months in advance or queue for two hours to get their annual fix.
I’ve visited Japan a couple of times and love the country, its culture and its people dearly. However this is one of its customs I’m definitely not going to adopt, although we’d struggle anyway as our lovely little town doesn’t have a KFC. Indeed, we don’t have a McDonald either, so some would say we are doubly blessed!
No, on Christmas day the Platypus Man and Mrs P will be sitting down to a plate of roast turkey, a sausage or two, roast potatoes, a few garden peas and some decent gravy. Mrs P and our rabbit Attila the Bun will also have brussel sprouts. I, however, consider this vile vegetable to be the devil’s cohones, and will steer well clear.
We will wash our turkey down with a glass or two – or maybe three – of “bubbly” (champagne or sparkling white wine) and then retire to the toasty living room, turn on the television and snooze peacefully in front of it until teatime. Ah, the joys of Christmas day, chez Platypus.
Wherever you are, I wish you a joyous Christmas day and a tasty Christmas dinner. Perhaps you too will feast on turkey. But whatever else you find on your plate, I urge you to avoid the brussel sprouts. You have been warned!
What will you be having for Christmas dinner this year? Tell the world about your Christmas menu by submitting a comment.