I had the honor of being the event steward for our Wassail celebration in the Barony this past winter. This is the longest running revel our group has held. Our Baronial Wassail used to be a great gathering place for those who have distanced themselves from the group in one way or another and this was the time of year that everyone generally made sure they could make it to the event to visit. This was a good chance to refocus the event a bit by adding a bit of research on what is “WASSAIL” and how to make an event period.
During the Middle Ages, Wassail meant many different things since it was blending of older Germanic, Roman, and Greek traditions combined and changed over the years with the introduction of Christianity. A common theme that remained throughout the years, however, was that it was a time when villages or large families gathered to celebrate the holidays and the ‘community’ of being a group. These were the elements that I tried to focus on and try to pronounce for Cynnabar at this year’s Wassail. It was my goal to have the event featuring both Yule and Wassail traditions. And, to create much time for socializing, some voluntary activities, and visiting with friends — all in a holiday and party-like atmosphere.
The space at our rental facility is not terribly large. We made an effort to set up a limited number of tables and add when we need to as people arrive. This allowed more room for people to mingle and socialize. We also used a couple of different table shapes and indicated which ones would be removed for dancing later in the evening. The event runs all day, so there needed to be space for people to day camp and visit with their friends. We had several folks on hand to help with period games — if the socializing wasn’t enough! The hall was decorated with our bright red table cloths, pine and cedar branches, candles, and dried fruits. For the head table, my assistant steward, Lady Eidy, and I strung dried fruit and spices in a garland. These were inspired by a cooking class lesson on a Tudor Christmas feast I had recently taken.
This was a simple method of placing fruit on a baker’s cooking rack in the oven at 200-degrees for several hours. My house smelled amazing while it was drying out! We strung the fruit, spices, and berries on a strong cooking string and I left it to hang in my basement for several days prior to the event. The end result was intertwined with real cedar roping along the front of the head table. We placed candles (Battery operated for safety reasons) into the center to indicate the center of the table. It was well received by Their Excellencies! The other tables were decorated to match.
The most well-received addition to the event was the Yule fire. We combined several period traditions which we hope to continue in the coming years making them all our own. The Yule Log can be traced back as far as the Midwinter festivals of the Norse who would feast, drink, and watch the fire. The Vikings would carve runes representing unwanted traits (such as ill fortune or poor honor) that they wanted the gods to take from them right onto the log. And it was decorated with evergreens and flowers, sprinkled with grain or cider and then lit on fire to burn through the night. We had a small ceremony where Their Excellencies talked about these traditions, poured wine over the log (which read in Runes “Goodbye 2016. Best wishes 2017) and lit the log on fire. Throughout the day, the populace came watch the fire, and at their pleasure, wrote a personal wish or message as an offering to the fire for the coming new year.
In European, the Yule Log was believed to bring great magic and was kept burning for an entire day or sometimes even a few weeks! It warmed both the house and all who lived there — just like it did us that day. It was thought that as long as the fire burned the house would be protected from evil spirits! Many took turns minding the fire throughout the day and evening at the event. And, we sang carols outside around it too — which is also period Wassail practice! At the end of the evening, the fire was extinguished and the populace was be invited to keep some ashes to bring home as a good luck charm. In the Middle Ages, the ashes were used in potions and other strong protections thought to purify or bring fertility. And as also done in a period tradition, a portion of one of the logs from our Yule fire was saved and will be used to light next year’s fire. This was a very, very popular portion of the Wassail event this year — and I hope to see it continued!
Wassail gets its name from the Old English term “waes hael”, meaning “be well”. It was a Saxon custom that at the start of each year, the lord of the manor would shout ‘waes hael‘. The assembled crowd would reply ‘drinc hael‘, meaning ‘drink and be healthy’. Texts dating to the 14th century describe a large drinking bowl being raised and held to the crowd along with these toasts and which was then was passed around the room and shared among guests. I had a period wassail drinking bowl commissioned by Sargent Gilebert. We passed the bowl during court so everyone could fill their cups to make a proper wassail toast (adult and non-adult versions available). I used a period recipe that was already redacted that contained spiced ale, sherry, sugar, apple cider, spices, and orange slices. It was VERY tasty!
There are other variants of ‘wassailing’ where the revelry is done from house to house. Many times this was done with song in the hopes that food would be offered. Parts of our choir sang some period wassail songs that day too. In the middle ages, the wassail was a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient-initiated charitable giving, and so it could be distinguished from begging. In fact, early caroling from home to home was started around this time when most of the social rules were put by the wayside for merriment and misrule. During this time, the well-off were expected to share their wealth with poorer citizens by inviting them to dine in their homes. Songs were sung in exchange for this hospitality. In addition to have the choir singing outside around the fire (which, was more or less a warm up — in a couple of ways!) we also sang some period wassail songs just before court.
In the SCA, most people are considered to be “Nobility” as we’re all supposed to comport ourselves as Lords and Ladies. With the idea of making this event more period, I wanted to use the thought that we could create some sort of outreach for our own communities. While we weren’t inviting others into the event from the outside — we could at least give back to our neighbors. We sourced a local food bank and put out a call for non-perishable foods. We managed to raise over 40# of food for Food Gatherer’s of Ann Arbor — which was a great feeling. We also held a dessert auction where people donated baked goods and other sweet treats and bid them off to the highest price! These donations were made to the Royal Travel fund — for which we raised $200 that evening. Considering these both a success, it’ll be our pleasure to hold both of these fundraisers again though we’re looking at alternate charities — and…it’s period!
One thing that is completely NOT period…is Facebook, of course! Modernly, I’m a marketing professional, though, and knowing how the SCA seems to be completely driven by the SCA, I used this event as a place to do a Facebook marketing campaign promoting our Wassail event. The idea was to get people excited about attending and to show them that I had done some research into the activities that we’d be participating in that day. Starting about 2 months before the event I posted every other week up until the month of the event when I was posting increasingly every other day. Calls for help, signups for food items or donations, talk about the fire — everything helped out doing it on Facebook. I highly suggest this strategy for other SCA events in the future. It’s a great way to communicate the vision of your event to those attending and especially those on the fence about attending!
Oh yeah…and one last thing….SANTA! We had a visitor by “THE” man himself (wink-wink). Dressed in a semi-Santa/semi-Father Christmas outfit our local Santa came to give all the good children a small gift. He even knew them all by name. We had purchased some wooden toys and whistles (sorry parents) for the kids and wrapped them with cloth and string all in an effort be slightly historic. Santa was great — and was requested by our Baroness as the ONE thing she wanted to make sure happened this year. I hope our Wassail is on his stop for next year!