January 6th – Twelfth Day

Being twelfth-day, his majesty went to the chapel royal, with the usual solemnity, and offered gold, myrrh, and frankincense, in three purses, at the altar, according to ancient custom.

Your anonymous correspondent, vol. H. p. 928, having said that he never heard of Lamb’s-wool, or Christmas-eve, and cannot guess the meaning, I am induced to trouble you with the following attempt at an explanation of what was meant by the expression.

In that part of Yorkshire (near Leedes) where I was born and spent my youth, I remember when I was a boy that it was customary for many families on the twelfth eve of Christmas (not on Christmas-eve, as your .correspondent [ante, p. 6], mentions) to invite their relations, friends, and neighbours to their houses to play at cards, and to partake of a supper, of which minced pies were an indispensable ingredient ; and after supper was brought in the Wassail Cup or Was-sail Bowl, being a large bowl, such as is now used for punch, filled with sweetened ale and roasted apples. I have seen bowls used for this purpose that held above a gallon. A plate of spiced cake was first handed about to the company, and then the Wassail Bowl, of which everyone partook by taking with a spoon out of the ale a roasted apple,and eating it, and then drinking the healths of the company out of the Bowl, wishing them a merry Christmas* and a happy New Year. The ingredients put into the bowl ; viz., ale; sugar, nutmeg, and roasted apples, were usually called lamb’s-wool, and the night on which it used to be drunk (which was generally on the twelfth-eve). was commonly called Wassail Eve.

I am of opinion that the custom was very ancient ; but from whence it arose, or why the mixture was called lamb’s-wool, I do not at present pretend to account. Shakespeare certainly alluded to it in his Midsummer .Night’s Dream, where he makes Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, say :

” Sometimes lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks against her lips I bob,
And on her withered dewlap pour the ale.”

A very common accident, especially to old people, who oftentimes had as much Lamb’s-wool in the bowl as they could lift to their heads, and sometimes more than they could do so without assistance.

Since the alteration of the style, the Wassail Bowl or Wassail Cup, as it was called, is so much gone into disuse in this part of the country, that I have scarcely seen it introduced into company these thirty years. Indeed, the festival of Christmas is not celebrated since that period as it used to be in my remembrance.

We have in this place a very ancient custom yet kept up, viz., the Curfeu Bells, called here Culfer, i.e. that is, Cool-fire; which are two of the church bells rung alternately, every morning and evening at seven o’clock, during the twelve days of Christmas only, and at no other time of the year. They make a most disagreeable sound.

P.S. Furmety used, in my remembrance, to be always the breakfast and supper on Christmas-eve in this country.

A few days since, looking over The General Evening Post, among some old customs there noticed as being observed in the days of our venerable ancestor Alfred, it says, ” In Glostershire the custom much prevails of having, on Twelfth-day, 12 small fires, and one large one, made in many parishes there in honour of the day.” As I have some reason to think this custom is more generally observed with us in Herefordshire, and as I have myself been for many years a constant attendant on this festive occasion, I will beg leave to give you the particulars of the whole, as it is still kept up in most parishes here.

It is here observed under the name of Wassailing (which I need not say to you is a Saxon custom), in the following manner : On the eve of Twelfth-day, at the approach of evening, the farmers, their friends, servants, etc., all assemble, and, near six o’clock, all walk together to a field where wheat is growing. The highest part of the ground is always chosen, where 12 small fires and one large one are lighted up. The attendants, headed by the master of the family, pledge the company in old cyder, which circulates freely on these occasions. A circle is formed round the large fire, when a general shout and hallooing takes place, which you hear answered from all the villages and fields near; as I have myself counted 50 or 60 fires burning at the same time, which are generally placed on some eminence. This being finished, the company all return to the house, where the good housewife and her maids are preparing a good supper, which on this occasion is very plentiful. A large cake is always provided, with a hole in the middle. After supper, the company all attend the bailiff (or head of the oxen) to the Wain-house, where the following particulars are observed : the master, at the head of his friends, fills the cup (generally of strong ale), and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen (24 of which I have often seen tied up in their stalls together); he then pledges him in a curious toast; the company then follow his example with all the other oxen, addressing each by their name. This being over, the large cake is produced, and is, with much ceremony, put on the horn of the first ox, through the hole in the cake ; he is then tickled to make him toss his head : if he throws the cake behind, it is the mistress’s perquisite; if before (in what is termed the boosy), the bailiff claims this prize. This ended, the company all return to the house, the doors of which are in the mean time locked, and not opened till some joyous songs are sung. On entering, a scene of mirth and jollity commences, and reigns thro’ the house till a late, or rather an early, hour, the next morning. Cards are introduced, and the merry tale goes round. I have often enjoyed the hospitality, friendship, and harmony, I have been witness to on these occasions. I have not time, or indeed room, to add more at present. Some other time you shall hear of some other of our Herefordshire customs.

Your Hereford correspondent, J. W.’s, account in your entertaining Miscellany, p. 116, of a custom observed in his county on Twelfth-eve, induces me to transmit you one not very unlike, which prevails in the other most noted part of this kingdom for cyder, the South-hams of Devonshire.

On the eve of the Epiphany, the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cyder, goes to the orchard, and there, encircling one of the best bearing trees, they drink the following toast three several times :

” Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow !
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow !
Hats full !—caps full !
Bushel !—bushel—sacks full !
And my pockets full too !


This done, they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all intreaties to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing, difficult to be hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open, and the lucky clodpole receives the tit-bit as his recompence. Some are so superstitious as to believe that, if they neglect this custom, the trees will bear no apples that year.

In your Magazine for January last [see note 4] I observed your Correspondent A. B. and C. gives concise account of the ancient custom of Wassailing, that formerly was much celebrated in many parts of Herefordshire, and in some parts of Gloucestershire. As I have many years been an attendant on these social and hospitable meetings, permit me to offer to your readers some particulars of this ceremony, as I have seen it kept up, with all due form, on the farm of Hunting-ton,* two miles West from Hereford, that for many years was occupied by my late respectable friend and neighbour, Mr. Samuel Tully, well known to the public, and many of your readers, as a farmer and grazier, more particularly distinguished for his excellent and beautiful breed of cattle. Among many visitors to Mr. Tully, at Huntington, to see his fine stock of cattle, I remember meeting the late Duke of Bedford, Lord Somerville, Sir Richard Colt Hoare, and other well-known amateurs in fine animals. A few years preceding the very unfortunate death of Mr. Tully, I, for the last time, witnessed the joyous scene of Wassailing.

On the eve of Twelfth-day (the Epiphany) Mr. Tully and his numerous visitors, near the hour of six o’clock in the evening, walked to a field where wheat was growing, and on the highest parts of the land one large and twelve smaller fires were lighted up. While burning, the master and some of his company, formed in a circle round the larger fire, and after pledging each other in good Herefordshire cyder, all the attendants joined in shouting and rejoicing. On the fires being extinguished, the company all returned to the hospitable mansion, where an excellent and plentiful supper was provided for the family, and all ranks of visitors. After the glass had circulated, and some songs had been sung, and happiness diffused through all the numerous company, near the hour of nine or ten o’clock, a second procession was formed, by all who joined in the concluding and more interesting ceremony. On corning to the out-house, where the oxen and cows were in their stalls, the bailiff attended with a large plum-cake, which, when made, had a hole in the middle. Previous to its being placed on the horn of the ox, the master and his friends each took a small cup with ale, and drank a toast to each ox, in nearly the following words (each of the 24 oxen having a name) : the master began with the first :

” Here’s to thee, Benbaw,* and to thy white horn,
God send thy master a good crop of corn ;
Of wheat, rye, and barley, and all sorts of grain ;
You eat your oats, and I’ll drink my beer ;
May the Lord send us all a happy new year !”

After the last ox was toasted, the bailiff placed the cake on the horn of the first ox, the boy touching him with a pointed goad. This induced the ox to shake his head, when the cake was tossed on either side; if on one side, it was to be the perquisite of the bailiff, who divided it amongst the company. On returning to the house, mirth and feasting prevailed till a late, or rather an early hour.

The Harvest-supper is frequently celebrated at this time. Much of the ceremony is now omitted. The twelve fires are frequently made, and concluded by a social evening. I have lately, near six o’clock in the evening of Wassailing, from our public walk, the side of the Castle, if the evening proved clear, seen numerous fires on the hills around, particularly on the camps of Dynedor, Aconbury, Credenhill, etc., scenes many of your Antiquarian readers well know.