Burning Somerset Ash

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.

Willow Bands

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 Dieback

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.

Chocolate Alternative?

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.

Recipes

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

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and BotanyKaren.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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