Each year on 6th January (or the 5th, if the 6th falls on a Sunday), a group of men make their way around the Cornish town of Bodmin, singing wassail songs to the locals. They dress in top hat and tails, smart outfits comprised of “gentlemen’s hand-me-downs” – clothes acquired from the local gentry and passed down from one wassailer to another over the decades.
The day begins at the offices of Bodmin Town Council, where they sing for the mayor and local councillors. Following this, calls are made to residential homes, local businesses and public houses of the town, but most of the day is spent calling at people’s homes, announcing their presence at the door with one of the three wassail songs they sing.
There are two types of wassailing. One is the house-visiting wassail, such as Bodmin’s tradition and has much in common with carolling. The other is orchard-visiting, found in the cider-making regions of England, which sees wassailers singing amongst the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year. The beginnings of the custom are unknown, but it has elements of Anglo-Saxon traditions – the word itself comes from an Anglo-Saxon toast ‘waes hael’, meaning "be in good health". As such, it is likely the rite pre-dates the Norman Conquest. There are different versions of these traditions found all over the country, each taking elements of one or both forms to develop their own local tradition. In this respect Bodmin’s is no different. However, it does have a special significance in laying claim to being the oldest surviving heritage in the country, running unbroken for centuries.
The first known record of the Bodmin Wassail was in the will of one Nicholas Sprey, a three-time mayor of Bodmin who died in 1624. As well as providing for his family, he also bequeathed the sum of 13s 4d for an “annual wassail cup” to promote “the continuance of love and neighbourly meetings” and “remember all others to carry a more charitable conscience”. Sprey – who was also Town Clerk and the MP for Bodmin during his career – directed that the wassail cup be taken to the mayor's house each year on the 12th day of Christmas, raising funds as it passed through the town. In 1838 the stipend was withdrawn, but the custom has continued to this day.
The Bodmin Wassail’s relationship with the town’s mayors has continued as well, with the group calling at his or her house each year. In 2008 former mayor John Chapman cemented that relationship further by presenting the Bodmin Wassailers with a specially commissioned bowl. Drinking out of a wassail bowl is an oft-mentioned element of the tradition in the songs, and as this type of wassailing increased in popularity throughout Cornwall in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the vessel used was a cup made of wood and decorated with holly, laurel and tinsel. In Bodmin, however, it was always made of pottery, as recalled by Mr Tom Green Snr, who wassailed in the town for over 70 years until the late 1980s. He told his fellow Wassailers it disappeared following the outbreak of the Second World War.
The current bowl was made by Lostwithiel potter John Webb, and is displayed throughout the year in the Tourist Information Centre in Bodmin’s Shire Hall. Its creation marked a new era of recognition by the council of the town’s ongoing tradition. Mayor at the time Bob Micek told the West Briton newspaper he felt it was appropriate for the council and the Wassailers to re-engage with each other: "It's a unique part of the town's and Cornwall's heritage and should be supported." Since then, thanks to the efforts and enthusiasm of Town Clerk Paul Callaghan, the Wassailers have been made welcome in the Mayor’s Parlour by the town’s councillors, to toast the health of all at the start of the day.
Recent years have also seen a refurbishment of the collecting box, which the Wassailers use for collecting money for local charities. The box was based on a church collection box donated by Wassailer Paul Scoble’s father, an old box which had been used for decades by the bell ringers of St Petroc’s Church. It is a marked improvement on the previous incarnation – an old plastic ice cream box with a hole cut in the top. Also, in 2014, a new leather purse for collecting money was generously donated. It was inspired by the lyrics from one wassail song: “We've got a little purse made of stretching leather skin. We want a little of your money, to bind it well within.”
The songs are the most important element of the wassail. Bodmin’s tradition has three, which is unique amongst wassail traditions – they usually have just one. The first is sung on arrival before the Wassailers enter the house or premises. The second was passed on to the current Wassailers by Mr Charlie Wilson, and is often sung during the eating, drinking, storytelling, fundraising and singing that goes on at each stop. The third is sung as the Wassailers leave, thanking their hosts for their hospitality: “So now we must be gone to seek for more good cheer, where bounty will be shown, as we have found it here, in our Wassail.”