British Ale Celebrations

Updated on August 28, 2019
James Slaven profile image

James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.

The breadth and depth of British drinking history astound me! Outside of the Cromwell Protectorate, you couldn’t throw a rock at a calendar without hitting the date of some sort of festival or fundraiser or another, of which many were celebrated with copious amounts of cheese, bread, and the favored barley drink. Sadly, the puritanical zeal of the roundheads and their leader stopped many of these for a while, but happily, many came back or continued in a quieter manner.

Church Ales

One of the most numerous were the church, or parish, ales, of which there were many types. These were fundraisers for the church where the entire village community would contribute what they could, commensurate with their economic standing, for the creation of an ale that was then sold back to the village to help the church.

The church ales were typically enjoyed after Sunday afternoon prayers were finished, when sports would be played, with heavy drinking playing its part, as well as the giving to the poor. It’s a pity the Puritans thought this uncouth!

Perhaps the best known is the Whitsun ales, which was made at Whitsuntide, the 7th Sunday after Easter. The festival was a favorite of Morris dancers and was full of sporting activities due to the lengthening of the day. Activities included dancing, tumbling, wrestling, swordplay, quarterstaff, cudgel play, casting the hammer, dog racing, and horse racing, as well as the consumption of copious amounts of meat and ale. This festival was especially hated by the Puritans due to the addition of dancing, along with the ale. Pity, as it was very popular and in Wiltshire, there had even been such a festival that continued since King Athelstan’s reign in the early 900s.

Other church ales were the lamb-ale, in the autumn during lamb-shearing season, and leet-ales. Although not specifically for the church, there were clerk-ales, which were to help maintain the parish clerk, who kept the day-to-day running of the church possible.

As a reverse giving, there was the tithe-ale; a repast of bread, cheese, and ale; which was given to the tithe payers (parishioners) from the church itself. My personal favorite, being the recovering Catholic that I am, is the Mary-ale, on those many feast days that honor the Virgin Mother herself.

Other Ale Fund Raisings

As well as church ales for the parish, there were many types of “ale celebrations” that were helpful to manner. These included the bride-ale (where we get the term bridal), which helped newly married couples; soul-ales, also known as dirge-ales, for wakes, which would help the family of the deceased; and Bede-ales, which were ales to help the poor “by his friends’ liberal benevolence,” which gave rise to the idea that the English are “wont to drink themselves out of debt.”

Scots-ales, as much as I’d like them to be a ceilidh celebration of bagpipe skirling fun, are simply meetings where the main purpose was to consume ale for fundraising. So, really, it still sounds like grand fun! The drinkers would divide the expenses, whether they wanted to be a part of it or not, as the fundraising was occasionally extortionary.

New Years

Even after all those, we can’t leave out the actual festivals and holidays!

Starting at the beginning with the new year on January first—just kidding! Starting the night before and rolling over past midnight into the actual new year, the Scots on the Isle of Orkney would make the rounds toasting their neighbors’ health, with the wonderful poem:

“Gae fill the three pint cog o’ ale,

The maut maun be aboun the meal.

We houp your ale is start and stout,

For men to drink the old year out.”

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is the final night of the twelve days of Christmas, occurring on January 6th. (Do you hear that, ya wee scunners?! The twelve days of Christmas start on the 25th, they don't end there!) Cakes, usually spiced, and ale were the consumables of note, with much of both being passed around to the poor. Minced pies being held in high esteem, as many considered this the last day to eat them for some time. Hobby horses were well employed, and there were also the King and Queen of the Bean, where the large Twelfth Cake was baked with a bean and a pea, and those who found them were thusly crowned:

“Give then to the king and queen wassailing;

And though with ale ye be whet here,

Yet part ye from hence,

As free from offense,

As when ye innocent met here.”

Certainly seems much nicer than the olden days where the King of the Bean was sacrificed to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Plough Monday is the first Monday following Twelfth Night, with mumming being the main entertainment, and much ale, cheese, and bread being given to the mummers and dancers.

Easter

Shrovetide is the time just before Easter, which ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. As Lent is a time for fasting, much of the more decadent foods and drinks were finished off during this time, and Brasenose College even had a special Shrovetide poem to commemorate the occasion:

“’Tis ale, immortal ale I sing!

Bid all the muses throng!

Bid them awake each slumbering string,

Till the loud chords responsive ring

To swell the lofty song!”

Easter Monday and Tuesday were “heaving” days, where men would heave, that is lift and kiss, the women on Monday, and then the women to the men on Tuesday. I’m sure there was plenty of ale here, too, following the long forty days of Lenten fasting, but I just really wanted to mention the practice of heaving.

St. George’s Day on April 23rd isn’t well known for ale celebrations, but the poor scholars at the free school would receive figs, bread, and ale on that day, from an endowment.

May Day and Summer

On May Day, garlands of hawthorn blossoms were collected and then a crown of them was given to the fairest maid, now named the May Queen in some parts. The May Pole was raised on this day, and a libation poured in honor:

“The May-pole is up,

Now give me the cup,

I’ll drink to the garlands around it,

But first unto those,

Whose hands did compose,

The glory of flowers that crown’d it.”

May 8th is Furry Day (no, not that kind of furry), where young men and maids would go out into the country and breakfast, then come back decked in flowers and bearing green branches, dancing to the tune of the “Furry Dance.” I’m sure this has nothing at all to do with fertility rites at all. Really, they were only “having breakfast,” and the flowers in their clothes were definitely not from romping around in the dew-kissed fields. Honest.

On the negative side of physical contact were the Gange Days, occurring in early May. The men of the parish would “beat the parish bounds,” which showed where the parish boundaries were and as an ancient rite of protection. The negative side comes in, due to some areas, notably Scotland, where the younger lads would get beat with the bounding sticks to reinforce in their memory where the boundaries were. At least there would be ale and buns after.

Autumn and Harvest Home

Next were the sheep shearing festivals, of which the lamb-ale was already mentioned. Outside of that particular church-ale, the festival itself was known for its immense quantity of food and ale, going to the laborers when the hard day’s work was finished.

“Come all my jolly boys, and we’ll together go

Abroad with our masters, to shear the lamb and ewe.

And there we must work hard, boys, until our backs do ache,

And our master he will bring us beer whenever we do lack.”

Now we come to my favorite, Harvest Home!

“With sickle and with knapsack,

So well we clean our land,

The farmer crys work on boys

Here’s beer at your command.

In a good old leather bottle,

Of ale that is so brown,

We’ll cut and strip together,

Until the sun goes down.”

I truly love the fall and all that goes with it, which includes the festivals that occur with harvest time (I really should write about Lughnasadh sometime). Sir John is especially honored at this time, that being a nickname for John Barleycorn, the anthropomorphism of barley and grains and ale and whiskey. One of the most important aspects of this festival was that of the lord giving ale to his workers, creating good will between them.

Porter was well-loved of the harvesters, for its wholesomeness and strength-giving. Both porter and ale were used in an after harvest drinking game, where men would gather and place a glass of the brew on a top hat. It was to be drunk quickly without spilling a drop; then the glass would be tossed up and caught in the top hat. In some areas, the end of labor was commemorated with the Hollowing Bottle (hollowing—make a hole or to shovel), which was a large container of several gallons of strong beer:

“With upper stories, mutton, veale,

And bacon, which makes the full meale;

With severall dishes standing by,

As here a custard, there a pie,

And here all-tempting frumentie.

And for to make the merry cheer,

If smirking wine be wanting here,

There’s that which drowns all care, stout beer.

To the rough sickle and the crooked scythe,

Drink, frolic, boys, till all be blithe.”

(Frumentie is wheat boiled in milk, sweetened and spiced; to be blithe is to be cheerful.)

In Ireland, at Halloween and All Souls Day, lambswool was the drink of the season. Made with roasted apples, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, and warm ale, it was certainly a warming drink. I know, for I’ve made a few different recipes, none of which I particularly loved; then again, if I had been born in the 1500s, any warming drink with alcohol would probably have been fantastic.

Christmas

During the Yule season, there was much celebrating.

“England was Merry England then,

Old Christmas brought his sports again,

‘Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale,

‘Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;

A Christmas gambol oft would cheer

A poor man’s heart through half the year.”

—Marmion

Strong ales were the style in the wintertime, and drinking itself was an important social and familial act.

“To quaff brown ale foam’d high from tall stone jugs

And pledge deep health in oft-replenished mugs.”

At Christmastime itself, Lords would open their manors, and there would be strong beer and cheese, and from some even those wonderful mince pies that were just lately back in season.

And thus ends this treatise on ale celebrations, insomuch as these are lesser-known tidbits. Certainly, there are more, and I could probably write a whole article on things such as the drinks mentioned in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol!” However, the hour is late and the year is waning, and I feel the need for a pint of strong ale and perhaps a mince pie.

So Slainte and wassail! I leave you, at the end of the year, with a final Yuletide poem:

“Now, thrice welcome, Christmas!

Which brings us good cheer;

Mince pies and plum-pudding,

Strong ale and strong beere.”

Check out these articles if you are interested in reading more about the lore of drink in English and Germanic cultures and Celtic cultures.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 James Slaven

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      • James Slaven profile imageAUTHOR

        James Slaven 

        4 months ago from Indiana, USA

        Thank you very much!

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        BayouBeer 

        4 months ago

        Another fun read.

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