Wassail is the name of a hot punch made from cider and spices that is traditionally drunk over the midwinter holidays. The word means "be healthy" and is a contraction of the Middle English phrase "wæs hæil". However, it is also the name for the custom of honouring apple trees in a ceremony that some say is a survival of an old pagan tradition dating back to pre-Christian times.
A few days ago a friend forwarded me a link to an old paper about wassailing in SW England called The Apple Tree Wassail - A Survival of a Tree Cult that was published by WO Beamont (MA) on 7 December 1920.
In it, WO Beamont describes a wassailing ceremony that took place in Bratton, SW England, on 17 January each year:
"Meeting at about seven in the evening the wassailers proceed to the orchard which is to be the scene of their first celebration, and, forming a ring around one of the oldest trees, dance around singing a particular song.... Cider, sometimes warmed, is then thrown upon the tree or poured over the roots to the accompaniment of much shouting, stamping of feet, and firing of guns. Before leaving the tree a piece of toast soaked in cider is placed in the fork of the branches."The symbolic significance of this ritual, according to WO Beamont, is that the blood of the apple tree - cider made from the juice of the apples - is returned to the tree at the dead of winter to revive it for the coming year so that it will "once more blossom and bear fruit".
These days, folklorists tend to be very sceptical at suggestions that any current folk traditions have their roots in ancient pagan tree worship, but I do like to think that this wonderful custom might possibly be at least similar to things our ancestors could have done in centuries past.
If you are wondering why wassailing took place on January 17 rather than January 5, it is because that is what is known as Old Twelfth Night.
In 1752 Britain moved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. To make the shift, 11 days were removed from September that year, on the King's orders. Some people - especially those in country areas - were very unhappy about this and stuck to the old calender. Thus Old Christmas falls 12 days after December 25 and Old Twelfth Night falls on January 17. The wassailing of fruit trees is one of the last customs in which country folk still like to stick to the old ways.
Wassailing events taking place this year include:
Saturday 16 January. Wassail by Hunters Moon at Middle Farm, Firle, East Sussex BN8 6LJ. From 6pm to 11pm. Free entry. Tel: 01323 769848.
Saturday 16 January: Wassailing at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire. From 2pm - 4.30pm. Cost: normal entrance fee. Tel: 01280 822850.
17 January: Wassail! The Cornish Orchard on Old Twelfth Night at Trelissick Gardens, in Cornwall. From 5pm - 7.30pm. Cost: £4. Tel: 01872 862090.
If you want to wassail your own apples trees, here are many different version that are easy to find with a web search. Here is the first verse of just one of them:
Apple tree prosper, bud, bloom and bear,The picture above shows the Wassail at Middle Farm in 2009 taken by Melanie Dymond Harper.
That we may have plenty of cider next year.
And where there's a barrel, we hope there are ten,
That we may have cider when we come again.
With our wassail, wassail, wassail!
And joy come to our jolly wassail!