Historical Research and Twelfth Night

posted by Nancy

Today we welcome Lair regular and debut author Barbara Monajem! Barbara’s novella, Notorious Eliza, is out from Harlequin Undone, and her single title debut, Sunrise in a Garden of Love and Evil, will be out from Dorchester this spring. Barbara’s here to chat about her love of history.

When I was a kid, we stayed up late on New Year’s Eve, and at the stroke of midnight, the whole family went onto the front porch and banged pots and pans. While staying up late was in itself a real treat, getting to make a huge racket in the middle of the night was FABULOUS. I never questioned why. It was fun, and therefore good.

It turns out we were driving away evil spirits. Whoa! How cool is that?

I never would have known if it weren’t for historical research. I love doing research,
because it leads me down so many unexpected paths, most of which have nothing to do with what I’m writing at the time. It’s like being in a maze, but instead of meeting a lot of frustrating dead ends, I meander happily from one path to another, wandering in ever-widening circles, far, far from where I began.

Then reality sets in and I go back to what I was researching, but the trip was fun. And productive! A few weeks ago, I researched wassailing in connection with a recipe blog on the Harlequin community. My goal was to find a few recipes to compare with the one I already had. Instead, I got a great history lesson and pots of fun ideas.

What sprang to my mind (before tripping in research world) was carolers in Victorian garb going door-to-door, rosy-cheeked from the nippy winter air (and perhaps the frequent imbibing of wassail to keep warm). But there’s much, much more. Wassailing has pagan origins (no surprise — don’t all fun celebrations?) and it’s been going on in one form or another for a long, long time. Door-to-door wassailing was a way of cleansing houses of evil spirits so as to start the year out right. Householders would deck their doorways with greenery. (Hence, here we go a-wassailing, among the leaves so green… Think holly and other evergreens, like we use for Christmas decorations now.) There was an exchange of sung verses at the doorway, and the wassailers would parade through the house, GOING INTO EVERY ROOM (what a cleaning nightmare for the house-proud, before and after) making a huge hullabaloo with pots, pans, musical instruments, and so on, to drive the evil spirits away.

One of my life’s great mysteries solved, all because of historical research.

In return for driving out the poor, beleaguered spirits (I can’t help but see a paranormal in this), you would feed the wassailers snacks and, of course, your home-made wassail. I won’t even start on all the bizarre ingredients your wassail might contain. Regardless, a house-wassailing scene, with all its comic possibilities, definitely belongs in a story. Or a not-so-comic situation involving thieves or smugglers, or a search for missing documents, or secret rooms where the evil spirits – or maybe irritable but well-intentioned ghosts – lurk until the foolishness is over.

Then there was the not-so-nice version, where groups of men would come a-wassailing and wreak vengeance (think curses — more paranormal stuff! — or vandalism) on anyone who didn’t give them enough to eat and drink.

Then there’s apple tree wassailing, which took place on Twelfth Night. (And still does in some locations – how fabulous is that? I would be in Somerset or Devon right now, begging to come along, if I had the time and money and guts.) It’s a night known for turning life topsy-turvy, for being the opposite of what you usually are, and for doing what you wouldn’t at any other time (which is of course ideal story fodder). Villagers selected a wassail king and queen, who would lead a procession from one orchard to another. The oldest tree in each orchard was given a taste of the wassail made from its fruit, to encourage it to produce abundantly the next year. A huge racket was made to drive the evil spirits from the trees. People got to kick back and have a grand old time before settling down to the business of the New Year. (And it was nighttime… perfect for illicit romance, as long as you could find someplace warm. 🙂

I don’t have an apple tree, but this year I’m paying homage to my antiquated pear tree, which deigns to produce now and then, and to the oaks and pecans which provide so well for our squirrels.

As for Notorious Eliza, the idea came partly from research (sort of) and partly from real life. A friend, who does fabulous trompe l’oeil work, painted scenes with a classical feel to them on his dining room walls. The same friend suggested I read William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire, which contains, among other things, much mind-boggling info about the Borgias and their orgies. Put those together, and I had a ballroom with obscene murals on its walls. Add a heroine who paints nudes for a living, and a hero insisting on covering up the murals so he can marry and bring home a respectable wife, and… whee! A story which practically wrote itself.

Happy Twelfth Night and Day to you!

Barbara is giving away a $10 gift certificate at Barnes and Noble to one commenter today, so tell us: What’s your favorite obscure fact? Your favorite holiday custom, the one you can’t wait to celebrate? Or a bit of historical trivia that you were surprised to learn was true?

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