The Master’s 2020 Christmas Message

From the Master

A personal message from the Master for this unusual festive break.

The Master’s Christmas Message

For some, this Christmas will be a time of reflecting on the lives of lost loved ones. It is also a difficult time with businesses closing, people losing their jobs and unable to support their families, through no fault of their own. Charitable acts could not be closer to us. Life seems unfair and tragic. But we all have hope and bringing that hope into focus is the coming of Christmas and the New Year – the birth of Christ and regeneration. Christmas will be different for many people, particularly those alone, who are prevented from travelling to see family and friends. The time for Wassailing can wait, for it is a Saxon phase ‘Wass Hael’ (Good Health!). And that can come at anytime of the year to bring us good spirits.

Christmastide is full of promise. Whatever our situation, it is possible to enter the traditions and customs of this special time of the year – it may be just listening to the Queen’s Speech or the Festival of Nine Carols and Lessons at King’s College Choir or having that special telephone call or Christmas Dinner, even if alone, as I know many people will. One can be part of something.

Most of our ancient winter customs have been abandoned. The Puritans saw to that, but one custom continues within the Livery. The Cutlers’ Company perform their ceremony of the Feast of the Boar’s Head, and so too Queen’s College, Oxford, where a similar ritual is performed when a boar’s head is carried into Hall on a silver meat dish as part of the Yuletide feasting celebrations.

Fire has always been associated with Celtic festivals. The Yule log is now only symbolic as a chocolate log, but in ancient times a huge log was dragged into the fire on Christmas Eve and burnt for twelve nights and days. The remains were kept for kindling to ward off evil spirits from the house until the next year. In Cornwall, the Yule log is known as the Mock.

In the medieval period on the 6 December, the Feast of St Nicholas, a Boy Bishop was chosen to act as Bishop in all matters except celebrating Mass, and his authority lasted until 28 December, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. In many ways, this characterised the ritual of Saturnalia, a Roman festival of light and fire, where anarchical jollities took place where servants exchanged clothes with their Masters. Here, the subject linked life over death in a fragile agrarian world. Such dressing up may also be seen in the mumming plays, such as those performed in Marshfield, Gloucestershire, on Boxing Day. But mostly these ancient dressing-up rituals have been replaced by the pantomime.

Fire has always been associated with the winter dark. In Allendale, Northumberland, on the night of New Year’s Eve the ceremony of tar-barrel burning takes place, when flaming containers are balanced on the heads of folk and paraded through the streets. In Lewes, East Sussex, the celebrated Guy Fawkes festivities happened to be an ancient custom. Barrels of lighted tar where once rolled down the hill towards the River Ouse with young blades jumping over them. Allegedly, it is a pagan festival. Symbolically, the fire represented light, summer, and when the lighted barrels were extinguished on meeting the water darkness fell and winter initiated. The Winter Solstice has now passed, and the druids have returned from their mystical Stonehenge (even if the stones have been removed and set in concrete!) and lighter evenings will eventually transpire.

Where there is dark there is light. That light is now breaking through. We have a vaccine and hope is on the horizon. Our Past Master John Rae has already had his vaccination. And our Livery Company remains strong. We have so much to look forward to in 2021. I am planning the year ahead, and much will be on offer by late spring. Both Bridget and I have had an extraordinary year, one which no Master will probably encounter again for very long time. Indeed, it is true for everyone, and we are so very much looking forward to seeing you again in the lightness of spring.

It leaves little more for me to say other than both Bridget and I wish you all, wherever you may be, a very Happy Christmas and Joyous New Year, when we will meet again. I am now off to make a hot water crust raised game pie with the good fare from the Garden of England full of lorries… In the meantime, a hearty WASS HAEL!