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What's a wassail? The UK's weirdest winter traditions

Liverpool Santa Run ©James Glossop

By Ellie Buchdahl, 2 December 2014

Centuries of winters, of short days, long nights and chilly weather, have given people in the UK plenty of time to think up some interesting ways of lighting up the December months.

Here, we pick out some of the zaniest events from across the UK to mix into your month of festive fun!

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Wassailing

Wassail what now? It’s one of the oldest winter traditions in the UK, that’s what, and one that dates back to the 1400s.

A wassail was a drink made of ale and seasoned with spices and honey. 

Barker's wassail 2013 from Kenswick (Picture by muffinn on Flickr under Creative Commons licence)
Barker's wassail 2013 from Kenswick ©muffinn on Flickr under Creative Commons licence

The word also means ‘be well’ in Old English. At winter celebrations, people used to pass around a huge bowl of wassail from which everyone would drink, or go around the town knocking on doors and inviting people to drink from a common wassail bowl or cup – an activity called ‘wassailing’. In an Apple Wassail, people would drink to the health of apple trees for the New Year.

In the UK, wassailing traditionally happened very early in the New Year, often around Twelfth Night (a festival that starts on the night of 5 January).

The Firle Wassail in East Sussex takes place every year on the first Saturday in January. It’s a spectacle of bonfires, music, dancing and people dressed in leafy costumes – and, of course, the traditional wassail bowl, now also available in non-alcoholic versions.

Mumming

Mumming, along with wassailing, is one of the UK’s oldest winter traditions – and one with an equally antique and unusual name.

It involves ‘mummers’ plays’ – fun performances by actors in very colourful costumes and make-up, often covered in bells, ribbons and all sorts of other festive paraphernalia. The plays tend to show a ‘good vs evil’ battle, often around the legend of George and the Dragon – a traditional story about a heroic knight.

Historic accuracy isn’t a big factor, however – Father Christmas generally makes an appearance – and audience participation is thoroughly encouraged.


Mummers singing Christmas carols at the Ulster American Folk Park, Northern Ireland ©NITB

Santa dash

A large, big-bellied man with a white beard and a woolly red suit may seem like an unlikely fitness instructor – and yet hundreds of ‘Santas’ get their sports shoes on in towns across the UK throughout December in a series of charity ‘Santa dash’ sponsored runs.

Liverpool Santa Run ©James Glossop
Liverpool Santa Run ©James Glossop

The biggest in Liverpool celebrates its tenth anniversary on 7 December this year. Around 10,000 people are expected to make their way round the 5km course dressed from head to foot in traditional Father Christmas apparel.

To find a Santa Dash (walk, run, hop or otherwise) near you, visit www.santadash.co.uk.  

Burning the Clocks

In the popular seaside town of Brighton, people celebrate the winter solstice on 21 December (the shortest day and longest night of the year) by making paper and willow lanterns for an event called Burning the Clocks.

Burning the Clocks, Brighton (Picture by Dominic Alves on Flickr under Creative Commons licence)
Burning the Clocks, Brighton (Picture by Dominic Alves on Flickr under Creative Commons licence)

They carry these glowing lanterns in a big parade down to the beach, where a big fire is lit, and everyone passes their lanterns down a line to go into the blaze.

It may sound like something rooted in centuries of history – but in fact, Burning the Clocks didn’t start until 1994, when Brighton’s local community art charity Same Sky set it up as a way for people of all cultures and religions to celebrate the festive season.

Find out more about this year’s Burning the Clocks at visitbrighton.com.

Burning the Clocks, Brighton (Picture by Dominic Alves on Flickr under Creative Commons licence)
Burning the Clocks, Brighton (Picture by Dominic Alves on Flickr under Creative Commons licence)

Mari Lwyd

A person dancing through the streets in a white sheet carrying a horse’s skull on the end of a wooden pole… Sound more like Halloween than holiday festive fun?

Not if you’re in Wales at any time in December.

Mari Lwyd (Picture by Raven Above Press on Flickr under Creative Commons Licence)
Mari Lwyd (Picture by Raven Above Press on Flickr under Creative Commons Licence)

Some villages celebrate the winter ritual of Mari Lwyd, meaning ‘Grey Mare’ or ‘Grey Mary’ in Welsh. 

This bizarre horse isn’t meant to frighten people as it parades around the homes, shops and pubs, followed by a crowd singing traditional songs. In fact, Mari Lwyd is a ritual to bring good luck and chase away bad spirits in time for the New Year.


We’ll be covering other UK traditions later in the month. Join us for icy swims in the sea on Christmas Day, Christmas cracker jokes, fun facts about Boxing Day and more…