Twelfth Night Tradition

3rd January 2021

The centuries old practice of wassailing on Twelfth Night is being recalled by the emergence of a rare lignum vitae bowl from the 17th century, which was made for just this purpose.

The 400 year old footed bowl would have been filled with warmed spiced wine or cider and passed round for all to drink from – a practice unthinkable in the current climate, but which showed charitable and neighbourly intentions between the wealthy and the poor in centuries past.

Wassailing is nowadays associated with Christmas but was (and in some areas still is) practised on Twelfth Night (5th or 6th of January) and sometimes on Old Twelvey (17th January) since the ritual pre-dates the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.

This particular bowl, due to be sold at auction in Salisbury in the spring, is believed to be unique as it still contains a decorative boss depicting the arms of Charles II. It is recorded in a 1936 edition of Apollo magazine in an article by renowned treen collector, Owen Evans-Thomas, titled ‘The Wassail Bowl and the Custom of Wassailing at Christmas Time’. It’s provenance and rarity mean that it is expected to fetch in the region of £10,000 when it comes under the hammer at Woolley and Wallis.

“We have sold several large wassail bowls in recent years, including one in 2017 for £17,500 which was dated to 1694 and named for Thomas White, possibly of Weymouth,” explained Works of Art specialist, Mark Yuan-Richards. “However, this is the first of this type which we have sold with a cover and it is an extremely fine example.”

The word wassail has its origins in the Anglo-Saxon greeting Waes pu hael (be thou in good health) to which the correct response was Drinc hael (drink and be healthy). It carried into more modern times in the words of Christmas carols such as We Wish you a Merry Christmas, and Here we Come A-Wassailing, recalling the tradition of groups of carollers visiting large country houses to be greeted with refreshments and toasts of goodwill.

“Sadly we have no way of knowing how many hosts have filled this bowl over the years nor how many pairs of lips have touched the rim,” continued Yuan-Richards. “No doubt it has seen many scenes of joy and carousing over the last four centuries, and its appearance on the market this time is an especially welcome reminder of shared experiences that we can hopefully return to before too long.”

The wassail bowl and cover is due to be auctioned on 31st March 2021 as part of the Furniture and Works of Art sale at Woolley and Wallis.

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