The pond-rous ashen faggot from the yard
The jolly farmer to his crowded hall
Conveys with speed; where, on the rising flames
(Already fed with store of massy brands).
It blazes soon; nine bandages it bears,
And as they each disjoin (so custom wills),
A mighty jug of sparkling cyder’s brought,
With brandy mixt to elevate the guests.
1795, author unknown.
The Ashen Faggot is a very old West Country tradition that at one time was widely seen on Dartmoor. The custom is considered to date back to Saxon times, however it is thought to have come from Scandinavia who at their feast of ‘joul’ would burn huge bonfires in honour of their god Thor. The ash tree was regarded as the ‘tree of life’ in Norse mythology. Sabine Baring Gold in his novel ‘Glámr’ describes an early instance of the tradition:
“Christmas Eve! How different in Saxon England! There the great ashen faggot is rolled along the hall with torch and taper; the mummers dance with their merry jingling bells; the boar’s head with gilded tusks, “bedecked with holly and rosemary,” is brought in by the steward to a flourish of trumpets.”
The custom was that a faggot (bundle of ash sticks) was bound with nine green lengths of ash bands or ‘beams’, preferably all from the same tree. The ‘Christianised version of the use of ash was that it was the wood that Mary used to light the fire in order to wash Jesus. In Romany lore it was thought that Jesus was born in a field and that he was kept warm by the heat of an ash fire. The holly, ivy and pine trees hid the infant and were allowed to keep their foliage all year where as the oak and the ash showed where he was hiding and they were condemned to die every winter. On Christmas Eve the faggot was put on a fire that had been lit with the remnants of the previous years faggot. Everybody would then gather around the hearth and eagerly watch it burn. Any unmarried woman that was present would each chose one of the green bands and it was believed that the woman who selected the first band it ignite and break would be the next to get married. In some places, every time a binding band broke a quart of cider would be passed around and a toast would be made. It was believed that any household that did not burn the ashen faggot would be in for a years worth of bad luck and misfortune.
Burning the Christmas Log.
Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your heat’s desiring.
With the last brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending
On your psaltries play
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teending.
Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here;
The while the meat is a-shredding
For the rare mince pie,
And the plums stand by
To fill the paste that’s a kneading
In 1878 local records show that in the postal district of Ashburton the tradition of burning the ashen faggot was observed at 32 farms and cottages. A first hand account of one of those celebrations notes that:
“It was usual when the fire was well lighted and the wood beginning to crack, to place the youngest child of the household on the faggot. The length of time the child stayed there was regarded by the old people as a sign of future bravery or otherwise,” C. Smith, 1989, pp86-7.
“Burning the ‘Ashen Faggot’ in a farmhouse near Ashburton on Christmas Eve. Two of the party had been present at sixty five consecutive faggot burnings. The faggot on this occasions was 5 ft. 6 in. long, and 2 ft.6 in. in diameter, and weighed nearly 5 cwt. The ancient custom is not carried out so generally as it used to be in old time, but in many of the rural parts of Devon no Christmas would be considered properly observed without the burning of the ‘Ashen Faggot’. The ash of the faggot which is seen in the photo was cut the same morning. It is the only wood that will burn in a green state.” – The Western Times, January 9th, 1914
After the ashen faggot was well alight and the ‘official’ ceremony had been observed supper was then served after which the rest of the evening was spent singing, playing games, story telling, and dancing if the house was big enough. With the design of modern houses it is very difficult to burn a ashen faggot today and it is only at the large old houses where occasionally the tradition is still observed. In some places it was said that the only time of the year when the Dartmoor homes were truly warm was when the ashen faggot was burnt.
On the 23rd of March 2003 the tradition of the ashen faggot and wassailing even reached a debate at Parliament when members were discussing the new licensing laws, The MP for Somerton and Frome, Mr David Heath remarked:
“My closing points will confirm the Department’s caricatured view of me as a yokel in a smock. I shall not deal at length with wassailing and the intervention of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on the subject, except to point out that a Somerset wassail is different from a Totnes wassail. In Somerset, we perform the act of wassailing on old twelfth night; it involves shooting guns into ancient apple trees—which probably have tree preservation orders—in order to scare away the punkies. An inordinate amount of cider drinking takes place while an ashen faggot burns and the wassail song is sung. The number of licences that we should need to perform all those activities is mind-boggling. They are best done in the privacy of Somerset villages and should not be brought to the attention of the wider community,” (Hansard).
In Somerset it was/is common for both wassailing and the burning of the ashen faggot to occur at the same time whereas in Devon they are separate events.
Smith, C. 1989 A West Country Christmas, Sutton Publishing, Gloucester.