A recent presentation at Glastonbury’s Somerset Rural Life Museum introduced me to a Somerset Christmas custom. I had never heard of it despite growing up between Somerset and Bristol. The old custom burns a tightly-bound bundle of thick Ash sticks and branches. Unfortunately, local Ash trees are already getting badly burnt by Ash Dieback. The devastating disease could kill up to 90% of our third most common tree. An already rare local custom is dying out with the trees.
Ash Burning Tradition
Somerset’s custom offered an opportunity for the local community to get together, drink cider, have a good singsong and much merriment on Christmas Eve or Twelfth Night. It is the Somerset equivalent of burning a Yule log. The tradition seems to date back to Anglo-Saxon times. The Ash, Fraxinus excelsior, was reputed to be the Tree of Life in Norse mythology.
An Ash bundle was tied tightly with 6-9 flexible Willow bands, known as withies. Each unmarried women present would choose one of the bands. According to tradition, the first band to ignite and break in the fire indicated who would be the first to marry in the following year. Each broken band would naturally also involve a cider toast by all present. The last remnants of the fire would be kept to light the next year’s fire.
The Tradition Today
It was considered bad luck for households not to follow this custom. However, few homes have open hearths these days. The tradition carries on in a few pubs. Unfortunately, even one of these has closed now. The local Church and pub(s) are traditionally the heart of rural communities.
Valued Ash Tree
The custom is said to commemorate how Mary used an ashwood fire to warm the water for baby Jesus’ first bath. Ash is regarded as a valuable commodity. An Ash tree is quick to grow and tough, with more elastic qualities than other woods. It is a trusted strong, weight-bearing wood. It is especially ideal for fires, as it can be burnt green with little or no smoke, unlike other woods.
Ash has very much been in the news this year. Ash Dieback stands to decimate Somerset woodland. Many stands contain a high proportion of Ash. Communities are increasingly coming together to work on solutions to Ash Dieback and the Climate Emergency.
I suppose the old Somerset tradition will have to be turned into a chocolate cake like a French Yule log. It’s our family’s Christmas tradition to eat my sister’s Chocolate Roulade with orange sauce.
Berry, Mary (?): Chocolate orange roulade. BBC Food. Last accessed 7 December 2019
Meilleur du Chef (2012): Chocolate and Crème Brûlée Log (illustrated recipe). 26 October 2012. Last accessed 6 December 2019
References and Further Reading
Avon Wildlife Trust (2019?): Ash Dieback. Last accessed 6 December 2019.
Cooper, James (2000-2019): The History of the Yule Log. whychristmas?com. Last accessed 6 December 2019.
EnglishFolklore (2014): Burning the ashen faggot. Medium. 20 December 2014. Last accessed 6 December 2019.
Forest Research (2019): Ash Dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus). Last accessed 8 December 2019.
Landscapes for Life.org (2019): The Ash Project. Kent. National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Last accessed 6 December 2019.
Mumby, Daniel (2019): 5 Things Mendip District Council is doing to combat climate change. Somerset Live. 1 October 2019.
Salter, Stephen (2019?): 800,000 Exmoor Trees at risk from Ash Dieback. Somerset County Gazette. 30 June 2019? Last accessed 6 December 2019.
Sandles, Tim (2016): Ashen Faggot. Legendary Dartmoor. 31 March 2016. Last accessed 6 December 2019.
Sancisi-Frey, Suzanne (ed). (2016): Field Identification Guide. Chalara ash dieback. Observatree monitoring tree health. Forest Research. UK
Shepherd, A. C. (2010-2018): Dunster & Axmouth Ashen Faggot. Calendar Customs. A Guide to British Calendar Customs and Local Traditions. Last accessed 6 December 2019.
Somerset Wildlife Trust (2019): Ash Dieback. Last accessed 6 December 2019.
Willey, G. R. (2012): Burning the Ashen Faggot: A Surviving Somerset Custom. Folklore. Volume 94, Issue 1, 1983. Taylor and Francis Online. 30 January 2012. Last accessed 6 December 2019.