Did you know that there’s a modern revival of wassailing going on? Wassailing is the predecessor of caroling and gives us context behind carols like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” but there’s something much naughtier than innocuous caroling going on.
Door-to-door wassailing journeys have switched from houses to pubs with annual events like the Running of the Santas, SantaCon, Santarchy, Naughty Santas, Santapalooza, the Red Menace, etc. Dressed as their favorite version of Old St. Nick, beer-sodden Santas raise funds for charity (like some versions of old-time wassailing), sing raunchy Christmas carols, and spread good cheer. Just watch your step the next morning.
Let’s focus on some of the naughtier SantaCon events, which first took place in San Francisco in 1994. It was sponsored by the San Francisco Cacophony Society. The first year, SantaCon performed a mock hanging on a real person – Santa Melmoth – in front of the Saint Francis Hotel around midnight. The second year, they were true to their cacophony name. Chaos is the best description. The cops found a commercial-looking Santa’s Heroin Cooking Kit; they nailed a lady Santa for baring her breasts; and tried to arrest the parties responsible for the mock Santassasination in Union Square. I guess the culprits used very realistic-looking starter pistols and scared the be gibbers out innocent bystanders.
Most Santa groups sole purpose appears to have fun and spread holiday cheer (i.e., get sloppy drunk), and most Santa-themed events take place internationally each year without any notable disturbance (beyond drunk and disorderly, indecent exposure, etc). However, Santarchy participants in Auckland, New Zealand tapped into the seedier side of wassailing. On December 18, 2005, a small riot started: looting of stores, throwing bottles at passing cars and assaulting security guards. The spokesman for the red-suited mob, Alex Dyer, stated Auckland’s Santarchy was part of a worldwide phenomenon designed to protest against the commercialization of Christmas.
If you pay close enough attention to Christmas long-term history, you can literally see the winter holiday season behave like some sort of toggle switch when the extremes of disorder or materialism are reached. Society in general flipped a switch to re-direct the Christmas ship from disorder toward materialism when Christmas was Americanized in the early 19th century. In our day, the max of materialism is now causing American society in general to swap more disorder for its previously emphasized materialistic leanings, unless one opts out of this sensual system altogether. Just understand that both disorder and materialism can be traced back to the Babylonian roots of Christmas; and therefore, they have always been a part of Christmas’ DNA.
In 2008, the Boston Herald called “The Running of the Santas” – an annual, nationwide drinkfest that infuriated parents and watchdog groups. We are told to expect reindeer games and debauchery, and by the way, stripping is sort of a SantaCon tradition. Philadelphia’s moniker for their Running of the Santas event is the “World’s Naughtiest Festival & Pub Crawl.”
The United States, and even the world, appears to be in the midst of some sort of hellish revival. One of the most popular versions of Old St. Nick these days for these Santa-ish street celebrations is Krampus. Before St. Nick employed elves to help him out, he was accompanied by a demon. Krampus is a creature with huge horns, a black mane, talon-like claws, and a tongue that would make Gene Simmons envious. By the way, the term “Krampus” comes from Old German and means “claw.” Krampus can be thought of as Santa’s enforcer. He’s the stick behind Mr. Claus’s carrot. Krampus beats, whips, and sometimes throws bad kids in a basket that he wears on his back. Once in a while, we are told that Krampus went so far as to shove his victims into a sack and throw them into a river, and he also had a taste for young pretty virgins.
It’s interesting to watch how some, if not all, Christmas traditions are returning to their primordial state. Before Christmas was sanitized and Americanized in the early 19th century, Christmas was considered to be a time of great demonic activity. Much of Europe still keeps track of this fact. On December 5th, Krampus gets his moment in the spotlight with Krampustag celebrations occurring all over Austria. The tradition includes intoxicated young men putting on big scary masks, and rampaging through the streets swinging whips and chains.
According to National Geographic magazine, Krampustag celebrations petered off in the 19th century due to some church intervention. This was also the time when the rowdy, communal, medieval, carnival Christmas was being re-forged by Victorian values into a private, domestic, child and family centered affair.
Like I said, we now appear to be in the midst of a hellish revival. During the 1990s, Salzburg saw the formation of 180 “Krampus clubs” who were bent on wrecking some serious Yule havoc. Another hellish harbinger is that Krampus has crossover into the mainstream. Not only is Krampus a favorite costume for Santa Claus Crawls, Amazon sells Krampus books and postcards. Perhaps you’d like to mail “The Devil in Design” Krampus postcards or how about attending a coffee house holiday story performance featuring the scary tales of Krampus (actual event in Greenboro, NC on Dec 9, 2009)? Krampus is becoming so mainstream that the Fox cartoon series American Dad aired their “Minstrel Krampus” episode last Sunday on Dec 16, 2012.
So how did we get from wassailing to caroling to outrageous drunken pub crawls? We need to travel back to wassailing origins. Wassail today closely resembles a mulled cider. Historically, wassail was more like mulled beer or mead. Sugar, ale, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon would be placed usually in a decorated bowl, heated, and then topped with slices of toast.
To wassail is to drink to someone’s health at Christmas. Not only is wassailing an oxymoron – drunkenness and good health – but it’s so ancient that we don’t know when the practice actually began. But we do know that wassailing has undeniable connections with Anglo-Saxon pagan rituals, specifically ancient fertility rites. For example, wassailing the apple trees or livestock was a venerable tradition (more on that subject later).
- Door-to-Door, and
- Fertility Rites.
Door-to-Door Wassailing was a drunken tradition where a group of less-fortunate neighbors (i.e., wassailers) would travel house to house with a wassail bowl expecting either a gratuity for a drink or the homeowner to fill the mulled ale (i.e., lamb’s wool). There was an additional expectation of the possibility of food too.
The Door-to-Door Wassailing practice appears to have some of its roots in the Middle Ages when peasants initiated a charitable holiday exchange with the feudal lords where they were the beneficiaries. To me, it seems not unlike acts of extortion. The point was said to be charitable giving, not begging. The song “Here We Come A-Wassailing” displays some wassailers informing the lord of the house that “we are not daily beggars that beg door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before.” The lord of the manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, which would be given in song. “Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year.”
Wassailing has become synonymous with Christmas. If records existed, I believe that we could trace the wassailing back to Babylon before the Tower disbursal along with the celebration of the sun god’s birthday on ancient winter solstice – December 25th – before the Roman shift in time with its ancient evergreen tree and yule log customs. Please refer to “Where Christmas Comes From – Part 1” http://wp.me/p158HG-1t , “Where Christmas Comes From – Part 2” wp.me/p158HG-2m , and “Bi-Polar Nature of Christmas” http://wp.me/p158HG-9p .
One of the current ways that wassailing stays connected to Christmas is its continual reference in traditional Christmas carols. “Here we come a-wassailing… Among the leaves so green…” As mentioned at the beginning of this article, wassailing is the predecessor of caroling. Although wassailing is often described with innocuous and nostalgic terms, its practice has a long and sordid past. Take for example wassailing in early New England where rowdy bands of young men who would enter the homes of wealthy neighbors and demand free food and drink in a trick-or-treat manner. If the home owner refused to play host, he was usually cursed and occasionally his house was vandalized. Historically, wassailing has not encouraged virtue, but vice.
The lyrics of a popular wassailing song exhibit its demanding nature, which we laugh at today, but it was very intimidating at the time:
- “Bring us some fuggy pudding… Right now!”
- “We won’t go until we got some” is the wassailer’s creed. They won’t leave until they get some wassail (intoxicating beverage). You can imagine how easily this drunken, demanding mob could escalate into intimidation and violence.
The longest running Santa Claus Crawl in the world is held in the tough mining and industrial town of Wollongong, Australia with more than 900 thirsty participants thronging roads in pubs (as of 2009). The drink fest is atoned for through their raising donations of toys for local charities. Has anyone else noticed that charitable giving seems to sanitize sinful behavior in people’s minds?
The charity angle of wassailing was emphasized by the Wassail Wenches or Wassail Virgins. Forget for a moment that these two diametrically opposed names refer to the exact same tradition. (Please see “Bi-Polar Nature of Christmas” http://wp.me/p158HG-9p .) The World Encyclopedia of Christmas tells us that these Wassail Wenches were English women who went door-to-door at Christmas, caroling and calling blessings on the homes they visited. By the 17th century, it was a way for women to gather alms. Many rural areas superstitiously considered a visit from the Wassail Wenches essential for the family’s luck for the coming year. Door-to-door wassailing eventually died out, except that it was revived in the 20th century in some parts of England with the money going to charity.
The other form of wassailing pertains to Fertility Rites (versus the Door-to-Door kind). The tradition of wassailing the apple tree or livestock is a revered one. To ensure the fertility for the coming year, English farmers developed variations to the wassail. On Twelfth Night, Devonshire men got out their guns and went out to the orchard. Selecting the oldest tree, they encircled it. Then they chanted a saying to make the old apple tree bear fruit, drank some mulled ale, and then unloaded their weapons at the tree. Once they accomplished this fertility rite, the men all headed home… probably to drink some more mulled ale and eat some fuggy pudding. In other parts of England, fruit trees were wassailed by being sprinkled with mulled ale, beaten with sticks, and declared in rhyme to bear much fruit.
Copyright Dec. 18, 2012 – Author: Robin Main.
Some references can be found in my book: SANTA-TIZING: What’s wrong with Christmas and how to clean it up (available on amazon http://www.amazon.com/SANTA-TIZING-Whats-wrong-Christmas-clean/dp/1607911159/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1353692179&sr=1-1&keywords=SANTA_TIZING).