My brother, his wife and some friends and I went wassailing in Herefordshire. It was a curious experience. A wonderfully clear evening – one forgets how many stars can be seen in the countryside – was obscured by smoke from paraffin-doused torches. It was cold.
There were a lot of Morris dancers, faces blacked (perhaps a tradition suggesting their origin as “moorish dancers”?) and tophats decked out with vegetation – the living embodiment of the green man, I assume. (I used to have a copy of “The Golden Bough”, which must explain all this; perhaps I prefer making up my own explanations…)
There was a procession, the line of wassaillers reminiscent of the extras from an old Dracula film. (We were the townies: it would be me they were coming for.) We stood around in an orchard as the Morris men – all men – lit thirteen fires: in a mash up of pagan and Christian cultures. The thirteenth fire – the Judas fire – was stamped out.
The apple trees were fed cake and given a drink of cider – though the dancers drank more than the trees.
And then the dancers danced, clacking sticks and jingling bells. Morris dancing is hard to take seriously after decades of ridicule (I remember particularly sketches by the Goodies and Monty Python).