Wassailing has ancient roots in Britain, but in the 21st century it’s fun to learn about this tradition and create our own version of this old custom. Wassailing is all about celebrating apple trees and encouraging good future harvest. It may be pagan in its 'roots' but was a tradition that kept going until Industrial times (and is still done in some places across the UK today). The basic idea is that people go to the fruit trees to wish them health, make lots of noise, and give offerings in the form of food and drink.
What is Wassailing?
There are some different definitions of Wassailing, but the one we are talking about here is ‘orchard wassailing’. A Wassail is the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and warding off evil spirits to help make sure of a successful harvest later in the year. It’s also about starting to return to ‘normality’ after the dark midwinter period.
The Term Wassail’ is said to come from the old English ‘ves heil’ which is a toast to your good health (be healthy). Wassailing originated as a Pagan tradition, but has evolved. No two wassails are the same. All over England there is some variety and difference in the Wassails, but the general purpose remains the same.
Wassailing is an old twelfth night tradition. Twelfth night is either the 5th of January, or if going by the old Gregorian calendar – 17th of January. However, today, Wassails tend to be held throughout January/early February. Before industrial times, the festive period was different to what we celebrate now. Advent was a time of fasting, was observed from the 1st to the 24th of December. Christmas would then last 12 days, ending with feasting and revels on the 5th of January – with wassailing a key part of the celebrations.
A wassail typically includes a visit to an orchard/local fruit trees. Some of the following may take place:
A procession to get to the orchard that may be led by a Wassail king and queen. There need to be lots of noise created on the way - banging pots and pans, as well as singing or chanting. Instruments can be played and whistles blown!
Some people dress up – usually a nature theme or medieval touches. Sometimes elements of mumming are involved (see below).
A warm spiced cider drink is carried in a Wassail bowl. This will be used for the trees and for Wassailers to drink.
Once at the fruit trees, the oldest tree is surrounded first. Some ‘wake up’ chants may be said, praise for the tree, some singing, may be a bow. Large sticks may then be used to beat the trunk and the ground around the tree to awakening the tree. This is followed by lots of banging and noise making!
It may be that a small child is lifted to add an ‘offering’ to the tree such as bread or cheese. This is followed by pieces of toasted bread soaked in the wassail drink and then stuck on branches of the tree and left there. The toast is thought to encourage ’good spirits’ such as Robins.
Drink is then poured on the trees roots - ideally made from thew apples of that tree.
You can then go and make noise and offerings to the other trees in the orchard too, and then have a warm drink!
In some places there is traditional folk music, Morris dancing and bonfires too.
How to hold your own wassail
This year I'm hosting a Wassail in my local park (which I am charity manager of) and I'm picking and choosing from traditions to create our own. We are holding children's activities first, and then a main Wassail for all ages to get involved with.
What we will be doing in our 'pre Wassail' children's activities...
Creating some ‘nature’ headwear (willow crowns adorned with greenery)
Make some noise makers such as bottles with lentils in and also willow hoops with bells attached.
Listening to the tale of the ‘Apple Tree Man’ (will add link below to this story)
Making some flags to carry (simple sticks with material or tissue paper)
Creating some ‘blessings’, songs or poems for the apple trees.
Wassail - main event
We are encouraging the community to meet near dusk and we will walk in a procession to the orchard - banging pots and pans, using our noisemakers and may be chanting 'Wa-Sail'!
We will gather around a tree together and offer some blessings/poems – then beat the ground around it with our sticks. Then make an offering of soaked toast to the tree ands hang it on the branches.
People can then choose trees in the orchard to make offerings to, make lots of noise and say poems/blessings/thank the tree if they so wish! When this is done, people are invited to have a cup of hot spiced apple juice. This will bring an end to our little event.
We will encourage people to visit the trees throughout the year to see how they are doing!
Wassailing can involve a variety of costume. However, for our event we ask people to dress for the weather - keep warm! If people wish to dress up or add a ‘touch’ to their outfit, then all is good but not essential. This could include a mediaeval look, elements of the green man, apple man, sun god or any other spirit (use of nature in costumes). Dress anything apple themed, or a robin, green face paint or even dress in a superhero costume – anything works!
A Twelfth night tradition is ‘mumming’ which usually means wearing outlandish costume made of rags or foliage usually. Mumming involved a group of friends or family who dress in disguise and visit homes within their community during the twelve days of Christmas. If welcomed into a house, they often did a variety of informal performances that may include dance, music, jokes, or recitations. The hosts had to guess who they were behind the costumes.
Other types of Wassailing
Another form the wassailing tradition took involved groups of revellers going from house to house to drink toasts and wish good health for the year ahead on the dwellers within.
Thank you to Ellie Lewis Illustrator for our poster design.