Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Dark is Rising with a Wassail bowl

An omnibus edition of 'The Dark is Rising Sequence' was my Christmas present in 1984 (when I had just turned 11, the same age as Will Stanton in the book). I was just growing out of Enid Blyton books and beginning to discover what my wider reading tastes might be, I clearly recall not being very impressed with the look of this book, starting it as a duty rather than with any real enthusiasm, and then loving it, almost, but not quite, to bits.

I still have that very battered copy, and have just re read 'The Dark is Rising' (the second book in the sequence) as part of the #thedarkisreading read along on Twitter (more Here). The book starts on Mid Winters eve (tonight) and finishes on 12th night. It's been a while since I'd read it, so I was a little bit nervous about the book I'd find - would it still have enough magic to raise the same enthusiasm my much younger self felt.

More or less, yes it does. 'The Dark is Rising' was first published in 1973, so apart from the specific geography the everyday world it describes was still familiar in 1984. 30+ years down the line the past is just beginning to slip into another country. What I really noticed though is how much time Susan Cooper spends talking about ritual and tradition, and how important it is to the way that Christmas is kept.

There is something about the way that the Stanton family Christmas is framed by these traditions - Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, a Yule log, Carol singing finishing with punch at the village manor, stockings (in actual old socks, and full of nuts, possibly a tangerine in the toe, and small things - just as I remember them) and the excitement of waking up to feel the weight of them at the end of the bed, church, and all the other things that fall into a familiar pattern. They ground the fantasy elements of the book both in an everyday reality, but also the lingering sense of magic the season brings (even to cynical adults).

All of those traditions are designed to keep the literal midwinter dark at bay. Near the start of the book there's a blizzard raging outside, buffeting the Stanton's house, and feeding a growing sense of unease in Will. It vividly recalls the vicious winter storms in Shetland, where even the most solid houses would feel like they were shaking, and there would be moments of disquiet - would the storm get in? It must be a fear as old as humanity, and the way that Cooper uses it is what makes this book so special to me.

The internet tells me that Wassailing and wassail bowls are becoming a thing again (at least in Bristol and Hackney), there seem to be two slightly different traditions, one specific to apple trees, where the drink is to encourage a good harvest the following year, and offerings are made to them. The other sounds like a cross between Carol singing and trick or treating - and a little bit like the Shetland tradition of guising.

I've never tried wassail, much less tried making it (it's the toast that puts me off), a bit of research suggests that it's evolved a lot and that there would have been considerable variation dependant on area, and resources, this recipe is from Ambrose Heath's good drinks so is twentieth century. My guess is that Will's parents must have been born in the late 1920's/early 1930's, so this is the wassail they would know. It might also be close to the sort of punch served at the manor when the Stanton children go Carol singing.

Wassail Bowl
To a quart of hot Ale add a quarter of an ounce each of grated nutmeg, powdered ginger, and cinnamon, half a bottle of Sherry, two slices of toast, the juice and peel of a lemon, and two baked apples. Sweeten to taste.

If you plan on serenading an apple tree, use cider.

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