Local customs

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Magna Britannia: Volume 6, Devonshire. Originally published by T Cadell and W Davies, London, 1822.

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Local Customs.

In most parts of the cyder-district a custom still prevails, of what was called in ancient times "wassailing (fn. n1) the apple-trees." This custom was accompanied by the superstitious belief, in the words of an old poet,
"That more or less fruit they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing." (fn. n1)

This ceremony at some places is performed on Christmas-eve; in others, on Twelfth-day eve. It consists in drinking a health to one of the apple-trees, with wishes for its good bearing, which generally turns out successful, as the best bearing tree in the orchard is selected for the purpose. It is attended with singing some verses applicable to the occasion; beginning, "Health to thee, good apple-tree." The potation consists of cyder, in which is put roasted apples or toast: when all have drank, the remainder of the contents of the bowl are sprinkled over the apple-tree. The old Saxon term "wassail," (fn. n2) which is well known to imply drinking of health, is thus defined in the glossary to the Exmoor dialect: "A drinking-song sung on Twelfth-day eve, throwing toast to the apple-trees in order to have a fruitful year, which seems to be a relic of the heathen sacrifice to Pomona."

The circumstances attending the reaping of wheat in Devonshire, and the harvest-home, are I believe peculiar to the western counties. The custom of almost the whole population of a village flocking voluntarily and gratuitously to the reaping of the farmer's wheat was almost universal in this county, although the practice of hiring reapers for the purpose has been gaining ground of late years, being a much less expensive mode; for though not paid, these volunteer-reapers are entertained at a much greater expense than their hire would cost; and the whole of the wheat-harvest appears, by Vancouver's description, to be a scene of noisy mirth, and intemperance. He says, that "when all the wheat in a field has been reaped and bound, a small sheaf is put at the top of one of the ridges, when the reapers, retiring to a certain distance, each throws his reaphook at it, until one more fortunate, or less inebriated than the rest, strikes it down, when the whole company join for a length of time in shouts of "We ha un, we ha un!"

It has been mentioned in the History of Cornwall, that at the conclusion of the harvest in the neighbourhood of Truro, the last handful of corn is tied up, adorned with flowers, and carried about by the reapers, &c., shouting, "A neck, a neck!" Mr. Brand relates, on the authority of the clergyman of Werrington, in Devon, (being on the borders of the north of Cornwall,) that the last ears of corn are tied up into a curious figure, which they call "a knack:" this is brought home with great acclamations, the labourers shouting, "A knack, a knack, well cut, well bound, well shock'd!" &c.; it is then hung over the table in the farmer's house, and kept till the next year; its owner preserving it with the greatest care, and refusing on any account to part with it.

The yule or Christmas-log, is still burnt on Christmas-eve in some parts of the county; in others, they have a custom of burning, on Christmaseve, a large fagot of green ash. Mummers go about at the Christmas-season, in some parts of the county, acting a kind of rude drama, on the subject of the exploits of St. George.

Wrestling, is still a favourite gymnastic diversion in the north of Devon, in the neighbourhood of Plymouth, and on the borders of Cornwall.


  • n1. Herrick's Hesperides.
  • n2. In some parts of the county they now call it watsail, and apply it to the drinking.