Cornish Folk Tradition: Songs Music Dance and Associated Customs
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The Cornish Wassail

Join us at Tremough House, Penryn Campus, on 25th January 2pm for hot mulled cider and a Cornish wassail in the Orchard

One of the gems of that brightens up these dark Winter evenings is the wassail, known as “warzail” in Cornish dialect and “wassel” in Kernewek. In essence it is a custom involving a song that blesses the apple tree and wishes good luck for the coming year’s crop. It is of course accompanied with cider from the previous year’s crop.  As a custom it is likely to be as old as the cultivation of the apple, but the word wassail is derived from an Anglo Saxon / Old Norse expression “Waes Hael” wishing you good health. It could have arrived in Cornwall as early as the ninth or tenth century, either courtesy of our English neighbours or the Vikings, who were our allies in the armed territorial struggle with our neighbours!

Exact origins may be lost but the wassail goes back a long way in Cornwall and it was certainly familiar to the audience of medieval mystery plays. In one play there is a scene involving a torturer who threatens to quench the thirst of his victim with “bystel eysel kemyskys wassel” which roughly translates as “a vulgar mixture of wassail bile”. This is a reference to the custom of pouring cider and any other available alcohol into a bowl that is then passed around amongst the wassailers. The mixture was probably quite interesting later in the evening which is why it was a potential instrument of torture in the miracle play.

Wassail customs divide into two forms. One focuses attention on the apple tree itself which has gone to sleep after the autumn and now, in the depths of winter needs to be stirred ready to embrace new life in the spring. This is achieved partly by singing a wassail song and partly by creating an infernal racket with bells, pots, pans, and anything else that comes to hand. In the other form, wassailers travel between the households of farmers and landowners wishing them luck for the coming season. The custom was incorporated into nineteenth century Cornish Guize Dance tradition either as a song that was taken from house to house or used as the finale to a mummer’s play. Many different variations of the song and custom evolved across Cornwall. The example given here is one of several that come from the Redruth area.  

Wassails are enjoying a revival in 21st century Cornwall as we become increasingly aware of the importance of appreciating and celebrating the natural world around us. The new sit comfortably alongside of living traditions like that of Bodmin which has a continuity going back to the time of the medieval mystery plays. Although Cornwall has adapted the wassail to become its own there is nevertheless a certain magic in knowing that it aligns with similar customs across Britain and Northern Europe. Wassails are by thier very nature small, intimate events and if you cannot find one near you then gather some friends (and some cider), find an apple tree and create your own.         

Click Listen to the Redruth Wassail with Cornish subtitles

 

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An Daras, doorway in Cornish, is an outreach project of Lowender Peran, Cornwall’s Celtic festival, and provides a portal to the distinctive traditions of Cornwall . The links on the site map will take you to the tunes, songs, dances and associated traditions of Cornwall. There are also links to teaching materials and further research work and publications on Cornish Folk Tradition.

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