Monday, December 21, 2009

Traditional Yuletide Food and Drink

(Image from

Blessings of the Solstice to you all! I have been somewhat remiss in posting to this blog in recent months and I hope to be back here more often from here on in.

This Yuletide, I've been reading a fascinating book written in 1973 by Tristram Potter Coffin called An Illustrated Book of Christmas Folklore. It's well written and very well researched. It covers the history of the holiday from its humble beginnings (yes it mentions Mithras, the Celts and the ancient Romans!) and looks at many customs and traditions regarding foods, agriculture, greenery and rituals and celebrations.

It's particularly fascinating to read about the customs of decorating with trees and greenery, as holly, ivy and mistletoe all have specific folkore attached to them. Yule was time of welcoming back the sun, of course, but also a time to celebrate life, abundance, and fertility in the dark time of the year. Today's customs of celebratory eating, drinking and gift-giving are based in the countryside traditions of people of all social classes sharing their wealth with servants, peasants and all their neighbors. Hence the many traditional songs wherein people appear to be asking for coins, food or drink, and offering a blessing in return.

Of course, one well-loved dish is the boar's head, prepared in Merrie Olde England in a very labored manner. It even has its own song, sung when the dish is brought to table! When prehistoric wild boars became extinct, the dish started to fall out of favor but is apparently still served at one of Oxford's college every year, complete with ritual procession and singing of "The Boar's Head Carol":

"The Boar's Head in hand bear I,
bedecked with bays and rosemarye!

The Boar's Head as I understand,
is the rarest dish in all the land!"

And so on, with a stentorious chorus in Latin.

Not sure where one would get a boar's head these days, but I recently saw a post on the Garden Rant blog about a New York state pig farmer who raises pigs in a humane and natural way, so that is a good place to start. I am always happy to see farmers raising their meat for slaughter in a humane fashion, and think we should all support them when we can.

I also enjoyed reading about the origins of wassailing, and wrote a post about it last year here. The apple orchards were an important source of food and drink to agrarian cultures in the British Isles and Europe, so it is not surprising they were included in the rituals of blessing at Yuletide.

Apparently there is a real rising interest in this custom today, as seen in this article from The Wild Hunt blog last year, and from the looks of events like this one at an orchard and winery in Wisconsin. Wassailing has a long tradition in England, where it's traditional to do it on Twelfth Night.
(Painting by Henry Justice Ford, "The Sun Hero Guards the Apples of the Sun" from
American pagans seem to enjoy making it part of their Yule traditions. I'd certainly love to see this tradition on the rise in the United States, as more and more people plant backyard orchards and try to support local farms. It seems to me a most pagan custom, and surely one that will insure a fruitful yield, if you believe that talking to plants helps them grow better (and I do).

This chant is sung at the "Wassailing the Apple Trees" event in Carhampton, Somerset:

"Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
For to bear well, and to bloom well
So merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout to the old apple tree!
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagsful
And a little heap under the stairs,
Hip, Hip, Hooray!"

How could the orchard not be heavy with fragrant, juicy fruit after being thus blessed?
(Painting by William Holman Hunt, "Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides" from


Dave Coulter said...

What a fine post...I liked the illustrations as well!

Chas S. Clifton said...

When I was an undergraduate at Reed College, there was an inexpensive pre-Christmas break feast you could attend where they did the whole Boar's Head Carol with a procession.

The head, alas, was made of dough. But it was still a good experience.