Thursday, December 27, 2018

Wæs hæl! Drinc hæl!

Although synonymous with Christmas, the tradition of wassailing, typically celebrated on Twelfth Night (variously January 5th or 6th), has largely been displaced by carolling.  Both versions share the practice of people going door-to-door and singing, but wassailing also involves offering a drink from the "wassail bowl" in exchange for gifts.

There is another version of wassailing, however, with ancient roots: the custom of visiting orchards in the cider-producing regions of England (chiefly the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire).  This form of wassailing involves incantation and singing, the purpose being to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit the following Autumn.

Whichever version you favour, the word "wassail" seems to be a contraction of the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning "be thou hale" or, if you prefer, “be in good health”.  In the twelfth century, Danish-speakers inhabiting the Danelaw turned Waes hael, and the reply Drinc hæl, into a drinking formula, a toast widely adopted by the rest of England's population.

So, if over this festive season you wish to go a-wassailing you might consider this Victorian recipe for...

The non-alcoholic nature of this recipe can be upgraded by replacing the apple juice with scrumpy or something similar.

Monday, December 24, 2018

From the Supply Reserve Depot

Success! For some time now, I have been searching for a stoneware jar marked with the letters “SRD” to complement Tastes Of History’s Great War themed history displays.  While many stoneware jars have been found, none had the iconic “SRD” lettering.  Just before Christmas Jill and I visited Victoria Mill Antiques Centre in Congleton, a favourite haunt f\of ours or seeking out period props and kitchenalia.  If I am honest, we went there for lunch as chef Ian Woodhouse serves quite superb food in the Loft Café, but it never hurts to have a nose around.  Within minutes, three stoneware jars were spotted at the back of a shelf but, so used to finding such things, I almost ignored them.  That is until I noticed what looked like black marks on one of the jars facing the wall.  Could it be?  The jar pictured is now part of our kit, but why all the fuss and what do those letters mean?

First World War, and later, period British Army stoneware jars were typically marked with the letters “SRD” which, according to the Imperial War Museum (IWM), stood for “Supply Reserve Depot”.  As usual various internet commentators continue to cast doubt on this meaning, but it is safe to say that the alternatives (see InfoBox), which are all too often quoted, are simply incorrect.

Other, more ironic, interpretations of the initials including: “Seldom Reaches Destination”, “Service Rum Diluted” and “Soon Runs Dry” are simply wonderful examples of soldiers' black humour.  If there remains any doubt on the meaning of “SRD”, then consider that the Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 to record the civil and military war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its Empire during the First World War.  Such a pedigree gives the IWM a certain authority on such matters and thus “Supply Reserve Depot” it is.

That containers and crates for other foodstuffs and drinks/liquids were marked “SRD” is completely understandable and consistent with them being distributed to the front through the Army’s logistical supply system.  Indeed, the iconic "SRD" jars, which are usually assumed to have contained only rum, may have held many different liquids or substances.  These stoneware jars were simply the common storage container of the day.  Variations in the shape and glaze colours of surviving examples is most likely the result of mass production by several different potteries.

The association with rum remains valid, however.  Except for Muslim personnel, British and Commonwealth soldiers were given a daily rum ration of 1/16th of a pint, or a quarter-gill, per man per day.  Given such a small amount, frontline soldiers would find it difficult to get intoxicated on the standard issue ration alone so stories of troops going into battle in an alcoholic stupor are most likely unfounded.  That said, some sources mention the run ration being doled out more frequently, especially when attacks were imminent or if heavy casualties increased the availability of rum.  Typically, however, the ration was issued once per morning at the daily “stand-to” when, just before dawn, soldiers would man their forward trench positions in preparation to counter an enemy attack.

Thursday, December 20, 2018


Ever wondered where Christmas comes from?  After all we have been celebrating a mid-winter festival for millennia.  According to the latest research, even the monumental Neolithic structure known as Stonehenge, completed ca. 2,500 BC, seems geared towards worshipping the setting of the sun at the mid-winter solstice.

From the Neolithic through to the Romans, people have been marking the lengthening of the days post the solstice.  Ensuring that the sun (and by extension, Spring) returned each year might be thought essential for any farming community reliant of the seasons and the cycle of life.  At the darkest point of the year, therefore, when people were increasingly dependent on the stored harvest and hoping they will have sufficient stocks to get through the winter, a celebratory festival would be good for morale.  Combine that with some form of religious observance aimed at placating the sun, or the relevant god or goddess, or whatever, seems eminently sensible.

Step forward Pope Julius I, Bishop of Rome from February 6th, AD 337 to his death on April 12th, AD 352 who found an expedient way to settle a question that had divided Christendom: when was Jesus born?

Throughout the Roman world, and especially in Rome, the great celebration was Saturnalia or, by the 4th century AD, "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti" (birth day of the Unconquered Sun).  The former lasted several days and culminated in the "Brumalia" on December 25th.  The later was also celebrated on  the same day following the dedication of a new temple to Sol by the Emperor Aurelian on December 25th, AD 274.  The longevity and immense popularity of this ancient festival, in fact the major celebration of the year for many people, caused some consternation for the early Christian church.  It just could not stop people enjoying the old rituals.

Pope Julius I thus found himself head of a faith at the heart of which was the resurrection, the defeat of death, by the adult Jesus - and this took place at Easter!  How then to wean the "faithful" off celebrating the old ways at mid-winter and follow the church's teachings?

The early Christians lacked a story of the divine birth of their principal actor, and had actively avoided celebrating the birth of Christ for fear it would mark him "a mere earthly king" (as the early Christian theologian, Origen, wrote ca. AD 245).  Pope Julius' response was to simply superimpose a Christian festival on the "pagan" one. In AD 350, the worship of one sun god was neatly replaced with another at precisely the same time of year, marking December 25th as the birth date of Jesus,  and much of the ancient paraphernalia and ritual was adopted.  Expropriation of the ancient mid-winter solstice festival gave birth to the Nativity.