Song- Jacobstowe Wassail
I am writing this right now sitting on the couch in our little den (formerly the bedroom), Christmas music playing and with the tree lights on in front of me. Having slept in a bit this morning, and after a workout at the gym I now sit here with a glass of red wine pondering what I should write about in today’s installment. Or should I say pondered once I saw the lights from the tree reflecting in the wine glass. Now I am sure most of us have recollections of relatives or neighbors having a little too much eggnog this time of year. As I type this in parts of my neighborhood here in Manhattan is an unfortunate gathering called Santacon, where people dress up as the jolly man, bar-hopping and getting rowdy. A tradition of sorts for some people, but not one I have ever wanted to be part of personally. Other than certain family traditions at this time of year I have nothing else that falls into that category. Which is why I have always been fascinated by other Christmas and Winter traditions around the world, and in particular in Ireland and Britain.
I think one of the interesting things about traditional wassailing in England, and the hunting of the wren tradition in Ireland on St. Stephen’s Day is that they both take place after Christmas. Almost as if people were preparing for the oncoming hard winter not by hiding from it, but by celebrating it past Christmas day. Indeed in some remote parts of Britain like the Shetland Islands, Christmas and New Years are celebrated on the old Julian calendar, at the 5th and 12th of January. Traditional wassailing, both the house visiting and orchard visiting kinds is also done after Christmas and New Years, though it has been amalgamated as part of the Christmas season now and some of the better known wassail songs have become “Christmas” songs, such as “Here We Come A-Wassailing”. Which is a shame in a way that they have been relegated to banishment for another year until the next Christmas when they are really and more accurately part of the winter tradition, and not just Christmas. I am actually guilty of doing this myself. Past noon or so on Christmas day, after the presents have been opened, after breakfast has been eaten, I am ready to move on. Lately though I have been thinking about traditions more. It isn’t just the history of the traditions that fascinates me, it is because they have not completely vanished it would be nice to find a place for them in our lives again somehow. There are still pockets of places where the old traditions are still maintained, and they should be celebrated for doing so.
The song of the day today, the Jacobstowe Wassail was fairly recently discovered from a collection by the Reverend Sabine Gould in the Devon and Cornwall area of England. It is performed by one of the greatest families in all of traditional music, Waterson:Carthy. The Waterson part of that comes from Norma Waterson, who along with her brother Mike and sister Lal and cousin John Harrison hit the English folk scene in the 60’s. Harrison left around the time Norma married Martin Carthy, who was already established as a guitar innovator and deeply knowledgeable singer of traditional songs. Their daughter Eliza hit the folk scene in the 1990’s and is no less an innovator than her father. Together they have released several albums as Waterson:Carthy, including the wonderful collection of seasonal songs and carols, “Holy Heathens And The Old Green Man.” I absolutely love the arrangement of this song. The rise and fall of voices together with the brass make this a boisterous song if ever there was one. It has been a welcome addition to my collection of seasonal music. It conjures up for me the traditions of wassail-the bowl, the singing for the cider, the beer, but most importantly the good company of others around you.
So as the wine in my glass gets lower, and the lights seem brighter as the daylight fades outside the window while outside on the city streets people with Santa hats on stumble around celebrating their tradition, I think I would rather celebrate traditions that actually mean something, along with music and musicians who recognize it. Enjoy your weekend everyone!
Jacobstowe Wassail-Traditional, arranged by Waterson:Carthy. Brass arranged by Alice Kinloch
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