Wassailer to give talk at Athelstan Museum to share the history of wassailing

Wassailer Robin Burton will be entertaining guests in Malmesbury this month by sharing the history of the practice which was commonplace in the South West until the early 20th century.

Robin, who is chair of the Stroud Wassail Group, will run a Wiltshire session about the wassailing and its relationship with Christmas on Wednesday December 15. The talk, which will last for between 40-50 minutes, will be illustrated with pictures and song.

The Stroud Wassail group began as a modest gathering of around a dozen people in 2014 and has now grown and has attracted several hundred participants including Morris dancers and mummers, dance groups, actors and singing groups all performing in 14 different locations around Stroud and beyond.

Robin said: “The most common wassailing, which was widespread in Gloucestershire, dates back to pagan times and was the ‘apple orchard wassail’, where followers sing to the oldest apple tree in the orchard, bless the trees, make sacrifices to the gods and pour mulled cider round the base of the tree to ensure a good harvest.”

But Robin will explain during his talk how most wassails feature door-to-door entertainers who play music, sing and wish everyone good health and good fortune around the time of the New Year in exchange for food and drink or perhaps some money.

Originally the word ‘wassail’ came from the Anglo Saxon greeting ‘Waes Heal’ meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be healthy’.

The Wassail Tradition is kept alive by the Stroud Wassailers from early December through to the second week of January when they visit pubs, hotels, private parties and other venues throughout the area. They perform various songs and present Mummers’ plays. Then, on the second Saturday of the New Year – traditionally Wassail Day – the Wassail itself takes place in Stroud.

One claim to fame came when Robin was contacted by the production company of the BBC series ‘Britain’s Christmas Story’ inviting him to take part in the series with Gareth Malone OBE, choirmaster, presenter and broadcaster. The series followed the history of Christmas revealing some of the legends behind the festive season traditions and, with the use of music, exploring what Britain has sung at this time of year across the centuries.

Robin’s talk for the Athelstan Museum will be held live on Wednesday December 15 at 7pm in the Rausing Building (the old Moravian Church), Oxford Street, Malmesbury SN16 9AX subject to Covid regulations. The Athelstan Museum is run by volunteers and has recently acquired its own Turner of Malmesbury Abbey which can be viewed free of charge during its opening hours. To book on to the event visit https://www.athelstanmuseum.org.uk/event/the-wassail-tradition/

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