Everything you need to know about the Stroud Wassail Tradition
PUBLISHED: 11:24 02 January 2018
2016 Stephen Rowley
‘The aim of the wassail is to wish all of the citizens of Stroud, and visitors to the town, a healthy and successful year. Along the way it boosts trade, enhances community spirit and helps to support local charities’
The tradition of wassailing is one that brings the community together in the spirit of goodwill, and to wish health and success for the coming year.
Although it had largely died out 100 or so years ago, local folklorist Gwilym Davies set about reviving the tradition, and now it is as lively and raucous as it’s ever been.
Robin Burton gives us an insight into the revival of the spirit of wassail in and around Stroud...
Looking to the past
On November 19, 1979, the song collector Gwilym Davies met a man in Stroud who described groups going around the top end of the town around 1914 with a decorated wassail bowl in which they collected money. He also sang to Gwilym a snatch of a Wassail song.
A document in the Stroud Museum also gave words for a Stroud Wassail song. The following is an extract:
Here’s to are master an to his right leg
May God send are master a jolly fat peg
A jolly fat peg as we may all see
And the wheysailing bowl we’ll drink unto thee.
Here’s to the master an’ to his right hip
May God send are master a good flock of ship (‘sheep’)
A good flock o’ ship as we may all see
An’ a wheysailing bowl we’ll drink unto thee.
A group of enthusiasts had also got together in 2014 and secured Heritage Lottery Funding for a project which, at its heart, collected together songs and dance tunes from Gloucestershire onto a central website. This collection included some 17 wassail songs from various parts of Gloucestershire. Clearly there had been a thriving wassail tradition in the county at some time.
So the decision was made to restart a wassailing tradition in Stroud. From quite modest beginnings, with a dozen or so people meeting at the Museum in the Park, Stroud, the event has quickly grown to an event which, in 2017, attracted several hundred participants and occupies multiple locations throughout the town and beyond.
Gloucestershire style of wassail
Originally the word ‘wassail’ (or Wayssail, Wassle etc etc) came from the Anglo Saxon ‘Waes Hael’ greeting; meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be healthy’. Over time this came to also be used as a toast with ‘Drinc Hael’ or ‘Drink Healthily’ being the response. To ‘keep wassel’ came to be used a term for merry making.
Then from the 16th century onwards we start to see references to wassails and wassailing cropping up across the country. In the 19th century folklorists started to take an interest in the subject. It became clear that two basic forms existed.
The first, and perhaps the most known by the general public, was the apple orchard wassail. This involves people going into the orchards to bless the trees. It often involves the reciting of rhymes, hanging toast onto the trees, pouring cider into the roots and blasting shotguns into the branches. However, no traditional versions of this type of wassail are known in Gloucestershire.
The second type was the house-to-house visiting wassail which is the type that was widespread in Gloucestershire. The wassailers would wish householders health and success for the coming year. They might also sing songs and perhaps perform a play. The verses sung would be chosen to suit the profession of the householder. Sowe see wishes for a ‘good crap (crop) of corn’, a ‘good flock o’ ship (sheep)’ or a ‘jolly fat peg (pig)’.
Wassailers often took around a ‘wassail bowl’. Sometimes this was used to collect money or to drink from, but most often was decorated with greenery and for pure decoration. They would also take around a ‘broad’. This is a kind of mock bull carried on a stick; usually made with cow’s horns attached to a face made out of a board and some sacking to cover the bearer and represent the body.
In exchange they would expect some food and drink and perhaps some money. In some places there was an implication that failure to do this might be met with a refusal on the part of the wassailers to leave or even minor acts of vandalism. Many wassailers wear some sort of disguise to make it difficult to recognise them.
The new Stroud tradition
Today the Stroud Wassail has evolved to have a number of elements. From early December, though to the second week of January, the Stroud Wassailers visit pubs, hotels, private parties and other venues throughout the area. They perform various songs and a new Mummers play which refers to many local personalities.
Then, on the second Saturday of the New Year, the Wassail itself takes place in Stroud. The day starts with entertainment throughout the streets from various dances troops, Mummers and others. Then a procession leads the assembled crowd to the front of the Stroud Subscription Rooms. They knock on the door and demand admission. The door is opened by the Master of the House (the town mayor) and a broad enters to chase out all those within. The Master then invites the wassailers inside for beer and cake. Another wassail for families takes place at the Museum. The day ends with the Wassail Revels; a variety entertainment featuring dancing, drama, storytelling and much else.
The aim of the wassail is to wish all of the citizens of Stroud, and visitors to the town, a healthy and successful year. Along the way it boosts trade, enhances community spirit and helps to support local charities.
Stroud Wassail is eager to talk to anyone who would like to take part in the Wassail and they are always looking for new wassailers as well as new dance troops, mummers and other entertainers. Click here to find out how you can get involved.
Dates for the diary:
The Ale House, Stroud, 7pm
The George, Nailsworth, 8.30pm
Three Horseshoes, Frampton on Severn, 8pm
Old Badger, Eastington, 9pm
Crown and Sceptre, Daisy Bank, 7.30pm
Stroud Brewery, 9pm
Prince Albert, Rodborough, 9pm
Stroud town during the day
Stroud Revels after 7pm