On Saturday, I attended a Wassail ceremony in our small village in North Somerset. The custom of wassailing dates back to pagan times and in many villages this custom has occurred for literally hundreds of years. Its traditions are based on the fertility of the apple tree. Perhaps unbeknown to the general public, this ancient English tradition is still very much thriving today.
Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night (variously on either January 5 or 6). Some people still wassail on "Old Twelvey Night", January 17, as it would have been before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
In the Middle Ages, the wassail was a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient-initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from begging.
In the cider producing West of England (primarily the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) wassailing also refers to drinking (and singing) the health of all trees in the hopes that they might better thrive.
A gathering of village folk (and wedding guests from a soon-to-be wedding ceremony!) met at the New Inn Public House and were treated by lady Morris Dancers resplendent in mauve and white dresses and with plenty of bells attached to ankles ands wrists dancing several historic dances. We were even encouraged to ‘have a go’ ourselves which added to the fun (particularly for the observers!). After fun, laughter and dancing we made our way to the orchard by way of the churchyard and across a field.
The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the autumn. The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King or Queen leads song, dance and/or a processional tune are played/sung from one orchard to the next. The wassail Queen will place toast soaked in wassail from the cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). She will also pour cider around the base of the apple tree before an incantation is usually recited.
The one we were all encouraged to join in with was this:
‘Here’s to thee old apple tree
Long may you bud, long may you blow
And may you bear apples enou’
Hats full, caps full, bushel, bushel bag full
And my pockets full too
Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah!’
It is then expected for the assembled crowd to sing and shout and bang drums, possibly even pots & pans but basically to make a terrible racket. We did our best to make a noise and the final act was Allen, (a gunman armed with a shotgun) firing a great volley through the branches to make sure that the work was done and the evil spirits sent on their way forever!
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