ONE OF the many small mysteries I hoped to resolve when I first moved to England was this: when British people sang "A-Wassailing We'll Go", where was it they went, and what exactly did they do when they got there?
Throughout an American upbringing I heard this song every Christmas without ever finding anyone who had the faintest idea of how to go about the obscure and enigmatic business of wassailing. Given the perky lilt of the carol and the party spirit in which it was always sung, it suggested to my youthful imagination rosy-cheeked wenches bearing flagons of ale in a scene of general merriment and abandon before a blazing yule log in a hall decked with holly - and, with this in mind, I looked forward to my first English Christmas with a certain frank anticipation. In my house, the most exciting thing you could hope for in the way of seasonal recklessness was being offered a cookie shaped like a Christmas tree.
So you may conceive my disappointment when my first Christmas in England came and went and, not only was there no wassailing to be seen, but no one I quizzed was any the wiser as to its arcane and venerable secrets. In fact, in nearly 20 years in England I never did find anyone who had ever gone a-wassailing, at least not knowingly. Nor, while we are at it, did I encounter any mumming, still less any hodening (a kind of organised group begging for coins with a view to buying drinks at the nearest public house, which I think is an outstanding idea), or many of the other traditions of an English Christmas that were expressly promised in the lyrics of carols and the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
It wasn't until I happened on a copy of TG Crippen's scholarly and ageless Christmas and Christmas Lore, published in London in 1923, that I finally found that wassail was originally a salutation. From the Old Norse ves heil, it means "in good health". In Anglo-Saxon times, according to Crippen, it was customary for someone offering a drink to say "Wassail!" and for the recipient to respond "Drinkhail!" and for the participants to repeat the exercise until comfortably horizontal.
It is clear from Crippen's tome that in 1923 this and many other agreeable Christmas customs were still commonly encountered in Britain. Now, alas, they appear to be gone for good.
Even so, Christmas in Britain is wonderful, far better than in America, and for all kinds of reasons. To begin with, in Britain - or at least in England - you still pretty much pack all your festive excesses (eating, drinking, gift-giving, more eating and drinking) into Christmas, whereas we in America spread ours out over three separate holidays.
In America, the big eating holiday is Thanksgiving, at the end of November. Thanksgiving is a great holiday - probably the very best holiday in America, if you ask me. (In case you've always wondered, it commemorates the first harvest feast at which the pilgrims sat down with the Indians to thank them for all their help and tell them: "Oh, and by the way, we've decided we want the whole country.") It is a great holiday because you don't have to give gifts or send cards or do anything but eat until you begin to look like a balloon that has been left on a helium machine too long.
The trouble is that it comes less than a month before Christmas. So when, on 25 December, Mom brings out another turkey, you don't go, "Turkey! YIPPEEE!" but rather, "Ah, turkey again is it, Mother?" Under such an arrangement Christmas dinner is bound to come as an anticlimax.
Also, Americans don't drink much at Christmas, as a rule. Indeed, I suspect most people in America would think it faintly unseemly to imbibe anything more than, say, a small sherry before lunch on Christmas Day. Americans save their large-scale drinking for New Year's Eve.
Nor, come to that, do we have many of the standard features of Christmas that you take for granted. There are no Christmas pantomimes in America. No mince pies, and hardly any Christmas puddings. There's no bell-ringing on Christmas Eve. No crackers. No big double issue of the Radio Times. No brandy butter. No little dishes full of nuts. No hearing "Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade at least once every 20 minutes. Above all, there is no Boxing Day.
On 26 December, everybody in the United States goes back to work. In fact, Christmas as a noticeable phenomenon pretty well ends about midday on 25 December. There's nothing special on TV, and most large stores and shopping malls now open for the afternoon (so that people can exchange all the things they got but didn't want). You can go to the movies on Christmas Day in America. You can go bowling. It doesn't seem right somehow.
As for Boxing Day, most people in America have never heard of it or, at best, have only the vaguest idea of what it is. It may surprise you to hear, incidentally, that Boxing Day is actually quite a modern invention. The Oxford English Dictionary can trace the term back no further than 1849. Its roots go back at least to medieval times, when it was the custom to break open church alms boxes at Christmas and distribute the contents to the poor, but as a holiday Boxing Day only dates from the last century, which explains why you have it and we don't.
Personally, I much prefer Boxing Day to Christmas, largely because it has all the advantages of Christmas (lots of food and drink, general good will towards all, a chance to doze in an armchair during daylight hours) without any of the disadvantages - like spending hours on the floor trying to assemble doll's houses and bicycles from instructions written in Taiwan, or the uttering of false professions of gratitude to Aunt Gladys for a hand-knitted jumper that even Gyles Brandreth wouldn't wear. ("No honestly, Glad, I've been looking everywhere for a jumper with a unicorn motif.")
No, if there is one thing I miss from England it's Boxing Day. That and, of course, hearing "Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade over and over. Apart from anything else, it makes you appreciate the rest of the year so much more.
Extracted from `Notes from a Big Country', published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99. At all major book shops or by mail-order on 01624 675137
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