It was a wonderful evening, it was an awful evening; the night was dark and cold, the fire was bright and warm; the rain was pouring down through the thick fog, the manor was warm and dry; the chill winter was damp and dreary, the yule evening was filled with cheer.
Such was the evening in which we find our party. There was a remarkable display of color in the dress of the host and guests, well displayed by a profligate use of candles in candlesticks and candelabra raided from throughout the manor. By and large, the conversation matched the festive display. In the corner on a raised platform were a group of musicians.
“Well, if it isn’t raining,” said the stocky, dark haired William.
“Aye,” said Ebeneezer, “I do believe it is.”
“It’s been some frightful queer weather we’ve been having this winter,” said John.
“'Struth.” William poked at the merry blaze that was starting to die back a little, “Gives us snow through December, and then turns to rain just in time for Christmas.”
“Rain’s warmer than snow,” said John.
“More seasonable, anyway, but if it’s going to be snowing it could at least have given us a pretty blanket for Christmas.”
“The snow’s nicer if you’re outside,” said Ebeneezer. “Rain is cold and gets in everywhere.”
“Snow does too,” said John.
“There you have it,” said William.
The three men lapsed into a brief silence between them that was filled with the music filtering through all the other conversations in the hall. Even as their conversation lapsed, another figure was making its way over to the fire.
“How’s dat bitch o’ your’n, William?” said the ruddy-faced newcomer as he carefully settled by the fire.
“Did you really have to, Henry?” muttered Ebeneezer.
“Oh, she’s the most beautiful bitch ever there was, and just as well behaved as you could ask. Smartest thing you ever did see, too. Picks up everything I teach her in no time at all. Strong and healthy as she is, I’ll have a litter in no time…”
Now, you will likely have heard the sort of enraptured monologue such as this can extend into. Fortunately for us, on this occasion, William gets interrupted, thus sparing you reading another example.
“So we’ve heard,” said Ebeneezer. “Repeatedly.”
Henry ignored him and his somewhat slurred voice rose above the nearby conversation as he raised his mug, “To th’ breeder o’ the fines’ bitches in Somerset.”
The group at the fire raised their mugs, and some of the nearby people who heard lifted theirs as well.
Once he had drunk the toast, William went back to poking the fire while the others nursed their ale and stared at the fire in silence, lost in their own thoughts and letting the noise of the room that drowned out most of the crackle and pop of the fire wash over them. Soon the thread of a familiar melody could be heard over the voices.
“…on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even…”
The conversations throughout the room quieted as first those closest to the musicians started to sing, quickly joined by the rest of the room. By the end of the first verse all in the room had joined in and the musicians were lost in the massed voices until the crowd ceded the solo to Lord Braye.
“Hither, page and stand by me…”
William turned from the fire to watch as the Lord finished the line and his son, Luke, took up the part of the page.
“Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain…”
A somewhat disheveled man who appeared to have made a hurried and only partially effective attempt to clean up entered by the side door and quietly stood near the dais, joining in the choral parts. He was of middling height and had light brown hair slicked down with water that still dripped from the ends. His face appeared to have some partially dried spatters of blood still remaining after being splashed with water.
The guests who saw him enter wondered if Lord Braye would interrupt the carol, and when he continued as though he hadn’t seen the man enter, continued to watch him as the song continued through to the end.
“…bless the poor,
shall yourselves find blessing.”
Scarcely had the song ended when Lord Braye turned to the man, “How fair my asses.”
“They fair well, sir,” said the man with a bow, “It was a hard labour, but the she ass survived, and the foal is well and nursing even now.”
“Then let us drink to new life,” said Lord Braye who made good his words by picking up his mug and raising it in toast.
“To new life,” rang through the hall in reply and mugs, tankards, and glasses were raised.
“Has the hearth been prepared?” said Lord Braye.
“Aye, sir,” said William.
“Then let the faggot be brought.”
In but a brief moment two servants appeared carrying the ashen faggot, carefully bound tight with nine withies of green ash. This was ceremoniously carried around the hall for the assembled guests to see before being brought to the high table. After viewing the faggot, Lord Braye arose from his seat and walked to the elderly rector.
“I believe thine is the honour of placing the ashen faggot upon the fire this yule, good Father.”
The rector took a moment to scan the assembled guests before replying, “With Obadiah gone to the Lord this past fall, I believe you are correct. Let us then proceed.”
The rector carefully rose from his chair and walked slowly to the fire preceded by the faggot bearers. Lord Bray walked beside him, followed by his family to take their places by the fire. When all were ready the wassail was brought forth in the great many-handled bowls for the occasion. The rector knelt by the fire and manouvered the ashen faggot onto the gently burning bed of coals William had prepared. The dry ash sticks quickly caught, throwing light across the singing revelers. The musicians struck up the traditional first song for the burning of the ashen faggot.
“Wassail and wassail, all over the town.
The cup it is white and the ale it is brown,
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree,
And so is the malt of the best barley.”
With the chorus the already bright voices grew in volume, and as the song progressed feet started stomping.
“For it’s your wassail, and it’s our wassail,
And it’s joy be to you and a jolly wassail.”
A few people sipped their ale while the musicians played the intro of the next song.
"Come all you worthy gentlemen
That may be standing by.
Christ our blessed Saviour
Was born on Christmas day…
"…Unto the Lord did pray.
O we wish you the comfort and tidings of joy!"
As the second verse ended the first of the withies burned through and snapped. A quick cheer signaled the passing of the bowls of wassail as each paused in singing only long enough for a draught. In moments the bowls had been drained and passed back to the servants to refill for the next round.
The revelers continued to sing, growing louder and more boisterous as the ashen faggot burned and the bowls were passed around again as each withy broke. When the last withy broke, freeing the bound ash sticks, several of the sticks were fished from the fire and taken aside by a few of the revelers to be used to start their ashen faggot the following year. When all were satisfied the remaining pieces were pushed back into the fire, and several more faggots were placed on the hearth until the fire filled the hearth and was threatening to spill into the room.
Now that the important event of the evening had come to its conclusion, the gay revelers drifted back to their various merriments, though somewhat louder and more gay than earlier thanks to the generous helpings of wassail. In time, some departed for their own homes, while a few of the less prudent about the quantities of ale and wassail they imbibed over the course of the evening ended up asleep on the floor as the festivities came to a close. By the approach of dawn there remained in the hall only a few unfortunate members of the household sleeping off their indulgence the night before. And here, dear reader, I leave you to your own Yule celebrations. May yours be as delightful as you could wish them to be.