After an almighty kerfuffle (I'm not sure I've every written that word before, so it may be wrong) and quite a degree of consternation/anxiety/all the rest, Maria & I made it back to Britain last Friday. Her visa arrived (or, more accurately, I went and collected it from the UPS van) 2 hours before we left for the airport – cutting it a bit fine for my tastes. But we are here.
And of course, still without a home. Plenty of temporary ones, or places to visit, present themselves, but it's a bit wearying really; we could do with a bit of space we can call our own. All prayers, as ever, much appreciated.
But it is good to be here once more. Just need to avoid sneezles and wheezles now.
“The Devil`s Knell will be tolled on Christmas Eve, to finish on the stroke of midnight.” – Dewsbury Minster Church Bulletin
In the Western world, the history of bell-ringing is inextricably linked to the development and spread of Christianity. There are no records at all of bells in the pre-Christian era, and the earliest references to them come from the second century, being used in a Christian context. Bell-ringing can take many forms, but the solemn ringing of the Passing Bell traditionally denoted the death of some significant person, and for all society to take note. In 1624, John Donne warned against sending ‘to know for whom the bell tolls’, since every human death brings the diminishment of humanity as a whole. But there is one funereal peel to which Donne would not have applied this rule, since on Christmas Eve in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, the bells record the demise not of any human, but of Satan himself.
In 1434, a local knight, Thomas de Soothill, flew into a rage upon hearing that a servant boy had failed to attend church that week. He grabbed the boy and, lifting him up, threw him into a mill pond, where the boy drowned. Overwhelmed by remorse at the murder, and as an act of penance, de Soothill paid for a new 1300-weight tenor bell for the parish church (now Dewsbury Minster), asking for it to be tolled at his funeral as people prayed for his soul. Sir Thomas also instituted the practice that the bell (named Black Tom after its benefactor) should be to be rung on Christmas Eve, with one toll for each year of the Christian Era, to proclaim the defeat of evil and the forgiveness of all sins, not just his own. At the time of writing, we are in anno domini (‘year of our Lord’) two thousand and nine, this being, in Christian understanding, the two thousand and ninth Year of Grace since the birth of Jesus.
Dewsbury Minster, like many congregations in the Church of England, celebrates Midnight Mass as the clock ticks from Christmas Eve to the Christ-Mass itself. “The first eucharist of Christmas declares the defeat of evil,” as the church rector says. With this understanding, Tolling the Devil’s Knell should not be seen as a separate ritual but as an extended drum-roll, leading up to the taking of the sacrament. The final toll is timed to take place on the stroke of midnight.
Since Black Tom now has to be rung well over two thousand times before twelve o’clock, the Tolling of the Devil’s Knell has to begin at 10:15pm, with the bell being struck (on average) every three seconds. The Midnight Mass service begins at 11:15pm, but the Knell continues. A scorer keeps tally of the rising number tolled, as seen below in a picture from the 1950s.
The tenor bell, Black Tom, was featured on a 31p stamp in the 1980s, as part of a Royal Mail set called Traditions of England.
Although Christian views on Satan vary, few would suggest that the Devil was actually killed when God was incarnated as a human (in the Nativity – ‘birth’), but that by this event his future defeat was sealed. In this sense, the Tolling of the Devil’s Knell at Dewsbury can be seen as a kind of exercise in goading; reminding Lucifer of his defeat and ultimate doom.
Alternatively, since the ringing of bells (and other assorted noise-making) was often used in Mediaeval times to cleanse a locality of evil spirits, the Dewsbury ritual may well have included such a function, although the alternate name for the ritual – Old Lad’s Passing – seems to indicate the former understanding.
The Knell is not participatory – the bells are rung by the Minster’s own regular team – and is far from a crowd-pleasing spectacle, since there are no accompanying rituals until the service starts.
The inscription on the bell is:
I shall be here if treated just
When they are mouldering in the dust
Often mentioned, rarely understood, wassailing is a midwinter ritual, primarily performed in England. Apple tree wassailing, such as is practiced at the Whimple Wassail, is a ceremony which involves drinking to and singing the health of the apple trees.
In pre-Norman days, the phrase Wæs (þu) hal! – meaning ‘be (thou) hale’ – was an everyday greeting, and it eventually wore down into the single word wassail. The Saxon and Norse English both shared this phrase, along with the accompanying practice of welcoming a visitor with a cup of ale or mead, which allowed wassail! to develop as an all-purpose toast to good health. Since ‘hal’ is the ancestor of our modern ‘whole’, ‘heal’, and ‘holy’, this toast can be seen as more holistic than wishing simple soundness of body. It is not known whether the wassailing of trees is as ancient as the phrase itself, or whether one practice grew out of the other, but it is in this midwinter ritual that the term has principally endured and remains in use today.
Wassailing is widespread throughout England, and especially in cider-producing regions such as the Westcountry, Kent, and Herefordshire. Its traditional date is Twelfth Night, January 6th, although many prefer ‘Old Twelvey Night’, January 17th, which would have been Twelfth Night but for the loss of eleven days after England’s adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. This is the practice at Whimple in Devon, where the village’s historic festivities (which had ceased during the Second World War) were restarted in 1993. Fortunately for Whimple, the fifty year cessation of wassailing in the village had not dimmed the memories of its oldest residents, and the present practices and songs are a continuation of the age-old.
On the evening of Old Twelfth Night, participants gather at the Fountain Inn in Whimple to meet, practice the songs, and show off their costumes. The Mayor (appointed for the occasion, since Whimple no longer has one) leads proceedings, ably assisted by the Princess and the Wassailing Queen, who lead the wassailers out of the pub to the first orchard.
The Princess carries lightly-toasted bread in a flasket, which the Queen dips in Wassail (spiced cider made from the self-same orchard) and is hoisted aloft so that she can hang it in the branches of the oldest tree, while reciting the traditional verse:
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full,caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Having done so, the participants (who bring a variety of homespun percussion instruments and noisemakers) sing the Whimple Wassail Song and dance around the tree, before toasting it with Cider from the communal Wassail Cup. The ceremony concludes with shots being fired through the branches and the villagers making as much noise as possible; shouting and screaming and banging their instruments. The soaked toast is seen as reminding the tree of last year’s goodness, while the noisemaking is used to ‘re-wake’ the trees for the new year, as well as being a variation on old cleansing rituals whereby evil spirits were chased from the vicinity.
Three separate orchards require three ceremonies, interspersed with processional music and a pause of remembrance to John Shepherd (who led the reestablishment of the ritual and taught the villagers all the old songs), before concluding with more cider and merrymaking at the village cricket club.
Wassailing rituals vary from place to place, with a variety of blessings, toasts and songs dependent on the locality. In Herefordshire and Wales, wassailing is often combined with midwinter rituals of spiritual-cleansing by fire, with flaming torches placed in tree branches and bonfires lit.
The fact that pieces of toast are used as part of a ‘toast’ may not be a coincidence. In former years, toasted breads and cakes were often used as a flavouring in mulled wine and cider, hence ‘drinking a toast’. The pieces of toast first used in wassailing probably were these flavourings.
I think I'm going to start getting into Tom Wright from now on – partly because I agree with him, and partly because, even when I don't (or I'm not sure if I do), there's something about his tone of voice that makes me feel that he doesn't mind too much. Maybe that's what Anglicans bring to the world – an accepting tone of voice.
Anyway, this is just an example, but a very good one. I love a bit of historical context.