Boscastle Old Christmas & Wassail

© Andrew Watkins

Storms raged, lashing Cornwall with powerful winds and unrelenting heavy rain, until, as if by magic, the morning of January the 6th arrived in dry serenity and stillness. On this day we returned to Boscastle to celebrate Old Christmas with Cornish winter customs. Our central ceremony last year was ‘Chalking the Mock’, a Cornish Yule Log custom as seen in the hugely popular Montol festival in Penzance. This year however we decided to have a Wassail as our central ceremony and we were very fortunate to have local folklorist and author Alex Langstone join us for the event’s organising, bringing his knowledge of North Cornish Wassail traditions. Our ceremony was to be of the Orchard Wassail kind where a tree of the orchard is ceremonially blessed, as is practiced in North Cornwall. There was only one problem to overcome; there is no apple orchard outside the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic where the ceremony was to take place! It was Alex who came to the rescue with his excellent idea of bringing a young ‘representative’ apple tree from Boscastle Community Orchard to place temporarily outside the museum as the focus for the ceremony which saw, for the first time, Boscastle’s very own Wassail Cup beautifully bearing the work of the extremely talented Paul Atlas-Saunders.

The event began with presentations given by Alex and fellow author Simon reed on Guise and Wassail traditions in the museum’s library. These talks had sold out completely within two days and were thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended.

Fortunately, those who were not able to get tickets for the talks could be entertained by yet another blessing in the form of the fabulous Catseye, a much loved North Cornish border Morris side who, as luck would have it, were celebrating their Squire Martin Kington’s birthday in the village. Wonderful food was on hand from Woody’s wood fired pizzas, freshly prepared at the top of the harbour (I had one, it was very good indeed).

© Andrew Watkins

Just as last year, the guise performers, musicians, mast beasts and torch bearers gathered outside the Cobweb Inn to begin the main guise procession, across the first bridge, following the River Valency towards the harbour and down to cross the second bridge for the gathering outside the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic. Along the way, the mast beast Penhood and the accompanying Teazer fell and arose in a dance of death and resurrection at the banishment of the dark, and the rebirth of the light. Outside the museum, the mast beasts danced as mulled wine swung gently in the cauldron above the fire, lovingly tended by Pip, Manny and helpers.

© Leanne Fullick

© Andrew Watkins

The Wassailing ceremony was then led by Alex Langstone, and the guise beasts Kasek Nos and Penhood prowled around the crowd with Alex to select someone to dip the blessed apple in cider and hang it upon our young apple tree:

 

‘Here’s to thee, old apple-tree! Hats full, packs full, great bushel-bags full! Hurrah!’ (Traditional: Warleggan)

© Sarah Jenner

The tree duly blessed with much cheering, the rather wonderful Boscastle Breakdown dance was expertly performed atop a half (health & safety) barrel, as is the local custom, by Alex Taylor and other dancers from Tros an Treys Cornish Dance Group.

© Sarah Jenner

We were then extremely lucky to have Cornish Grand Bard, and Cornish Piper Merv Davey play his pipes as Alison Davey led the crowds in joyous serpent and circle dances with the traditionally guised Merv stood atop the barrel in our midst. As we spun round and round, Merve cutting an enigmatic central figure in the torchlight, the powerful pipes echoing hauntingly around the harbour, the experience was every bit the otherworldly revel!

 

The guise beasts danced again as the procession made its way back along the water’s edge to the Cobweb where that which must be done in pubs was duly done with much music and song. Eventually the revellers emerged to continue their procession onto The Wellington, where music, singing and dances continued into the night.

All © Andrew Watkins

A huge thank you to Jane Cox, Alex Langstone, Simon Reed, the Raffidy Dummits Band, Alex Taylor & Tros an Treys, Alison and Merv Davey, Martin Cleaver, Dolmen Grove Cornwall, all our wonderful guise beasties, Woody’s Pizzas and of course the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic for a truly wonderful night. Photography by Andrew Watkins, Sarah Jenner, and Leanne Fullick.

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