There are several strange traditions that take place in the West Country, specifically in Devon. Events like Tar Barrel Rolling, Pixie Day, Worm Charming… Devon is a haven for unique celebrations and of course, the Christmas period is no exception! Read on to find out more about the Christmas tradition which determines whether or not you’ll be getting married!
The tradition includes the burning of a bundle of sticks taken from an ash tree, tied with the bands of saplings. The bundle is known as an ashen faggot and the remains of the previous year’s bundle should form the centre of the bundle. For those taking part in the tradition, the ashen faggot should be made on Christmas Eve and once completed, should be put on a lit fire and burned.
So far, not very West Country in nature – just wait though, every time a sapling band is burned through, you take a drink of cider! That’s not the only reason for the bands though, the tradition states that unmarried women in the room should each chose one of the bands and the first one to burn means that she will be the next one to get married. It is also considered unlucky for households to ignore the tradition and that lighting the fire will keep away the devil and evil spirits for the coming year. The inclusion of the previous year’s bundle is said to symbolise the rebirth of the year.
It’s not completely clear where this tradition comes from but has been seen in cultures across the world and the ritual itself dates back thousands of years. In Norse mythology, Ash trees are sacred and are known as being the tree of life, which is why it is used in similar ceremonies. The burning of wood at Christmas also has a long history, particularly with Yule, which is why we have Yule logs – it was popularised in Europe to mark the winter solstice.
You can see the tradition in action at one of Axminster’s oldest pubs. One of the town’s inns, which dates back 800 years, hosts the ceremony every year with a 6ft long Ashen faggot bound with seven hazel withies. Those who are in the pub on Christmas Eve each take a toast as the bands burn and sing carols.
The burning of a bundle of sticks from an Ash tree isn’t the only tradition you can find in Devon. Traditionally Christmas Eve was when Wassailing would take place, an event which continues to this day throughout the county. Wassailing is a festival where residents pay tribute to apple trees. The event wards off bad spirits and ensures a good apple crop in the coming year, though these days, you’re more likely to find a Wassail taking place in January, on 12th Night.