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Wassail and Twelfth-Cake : When England’s Christians absorbed the pagan traditions of ‘wassailing’, they kept the fun and cast out the fear.
Wassail and Twelfth-Cake

Ancient pagan rituals weren’t suppressed by the Church because they were ‘fun’, whatever people may say. Anything dark, anxious or superstitious was replaced by light, joy and reason — but the dancing, cakes and ale remained.

IN Anglo-Saxon times, the New Year greeting ‘wæs hāl’ (‘Be well!’) was followed by ‘wassail’, spiced mead or cider, and wassail-songs.

In the cold, dark fields, however, some anxious fruit-growers still walked their orchards behind a ritual king and queen, raising incantations, banging pots or tossing wassail-soaked bread into the trees hoping to appease or frighten lurking demons.

But Christianity brightened their winter with Christmas and, twelve days after, Epiphany, the ‘Feast of Lights’, celebrating Christ as Light of the world and Lord of creation.

Mediaeval monks now made farming an industry and a science, and ‘wassailers’ went from house to house singing carols, hoping for a glass of cheer or some figgy pudding.

At the Restoration, the Pepys family’s Epiphany was an evening of songs, fiddle-tunes and ‘Twelfth-cake’, an eggy, spiced fruit-loaf: whoever found the two small beans inside it became King and Queen of the day — with no spells to say.*

As St John wrote, ‘Perfect love casteth out fear.’

* See Pepys’s diary for Friday 6th January 1660 (the Feast of the Epiphany).

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Picture: © Colin Smith, Geograph. Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0. View original
An apple orchard in Burwash, East Sussex. Twelfth Night wassailing goes back to a pagan ritual of tossing cider-drenched toast into apple trees in early January. The idea was that evil spirits would be drawn to it, and then carried away by hungry robins before Spring began.

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