Do you want to ‘wake up’ some apple trees, so that you get a brilliant crop this year? Then you need to go a-wassailing and tonight is the night to do it.
Twelfth Night, the evening of 5th January, is the traditional time to go wassailing, although in some places 17th January is used as the date of this ceremony, because this was “Old Twelvey Night” before the Gregorian calendar was introduced (in 1752).
I grew up in Kent, the supposed ‘Garden of England’, where there were orchards around our home and, it seemed, everywhere you looked, but wassailing is not a big tradition there. The tonnes of apples that are grown there are mostly for eating, whereas wassailing is typically a ceremony more associated with fruit for drinking: cider apples and pears (perry). So orchard wassailing is concentrated in Somerset, Devon, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Gloucestershire, although funnily enough the only wassailing event listed on the real-cider website is in East Yorkshire.
What is wassailing and how would you do it should you wish to?
Wassailing has been customary for over a thousand years. The word was included in the eighth-century poem Beowulf as a form of salute. It derives from the Old Norse ‘ves heil’ and the Old English ‘was hál’, meaning “be in good health” or “be fortunate”. The usual reply is ‘drinc hæl’. Wassailing an orchard refers to drinking (and singing) the health of trees in the hopes that they might do well and produce a good harvest.
People who practice wassailing often keep a special wassailing bowl to fill with spiced cider. The bowl may be ceramic or turned from wood. The Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge has a fairly stunning earthenware example decorated with foxes, trees, chickens and people:
Ceremonies vary from location to location, but generally a wassail King and Queen take the lead in a song or tune, sung from one orchard to the next. The wassail Queen is lifted into the boughs of one of the trees (often the oldest) where she places pieces toast soaked in Wassail from the bowl as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show off the fruits borne last year). Then an incantation is usually recited such as
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
The assembled crowd sing and shout and bang drums, pots and pans, making a terrible racket to scare away any evil spirits.
So that sounds fun and I though that I might go out tonight a drink a hot mulled cider toast to my apple trees, as much to give thanks for the crop that I am still enjoying, but hopefully encouraging the trees to thrive.
Fancy joining in?