Tomorrow is Twelfth Night, January 6th, the date traditionally accepted as the end of the Christmas period. It’s the day our Christmas trees and other decorations come down, to be stored away for another year. Nowadays, with many people returning to work straight after New Year’s Day – if not before – many households pack away all traces of Christmas festivities much earler.
In England, January 6th is also often remembered as the day for ‘wassailing’ – which is what this post is about. I’m posting it the day before so you can all get ready the following items for your own wassailing ritual: a nice big, stout stick; a mug of wassail (generally mulled cider, nowadays); a bucket ot the same wassail, with a good stack of toast. Oh . . . and a handy Green Man, if you can find one lurking about anywhere.
More about that to follow. . .
The custom of wassailing in England has its origins in pagan times, although it has seen some renewal in popularity in recent years due to the return to favour of cider amongst drinkers. Wassailing has been associated with the Christmas season since the 1400s, as a way of passing on best wishes to family and friends.
The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’ – which means ‘good health’ or ‘be well’. The wassail itself was originally a drink made from mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. The Wassail drink mixture was sometimes called ‘Lamb’s Wool’, because the pulp of the roasted apples looked all frothy, rather like a lamb’s wool. It was served from huge bowls, often made from silver or pewter. One wassail bowl, housed at Jesus College at Oxford University, holds up to 10 gallons of drink. The one in the image below is not quite as big and is held in Ulster Museum:
The ingredients in the drink varied between different areas of the country, some using cider instead of ale. This image shows another recipe for the brew being prepared:
There were three ways in which wassailing was celebrated:
The first way was the passing around a room of a common bowl, often called a ‘loving cup’, to be shared. It would be accompanied by the greeting, ‘Wassail!’ This seems to be the only use, as far as I can see, of a bowl as huge as the one in Oxford. I can’t imagine a great 10 gallon vessel being hauled around the houses, or out to the orchards – although, I suppose, a horse and cart could have been used. According to one legend, wassailing was created when a beautiful Saxon maiden, called Rowena, presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting him with the words ‘waes hael’.
Over the centuries this simple act developed into an elaborate ceremony, with the bowl being carried into the room with great fanfare. A carol about the drink would be sung before the hot beverage was drunk.
The second way of wassailing was what is generally known as carolling today. People would go from door to door with a bowl of wassail, bringing good wishes to those inside. In return, the wassailers would be given drink, money, or some kind of Christmas treat, like a mince pie. The householders believed that this would bring them luck in the coming year.
This is the first verse of the most well known wassailing song/carol, which was popular throughout England by the middle of the 19th century. It’s simply called The Wassail Song:
Here we come a wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wandering
So fair to be seen.
This video shows a really good, modern version of this song, albeit faster and more lively than the way it would have originally been sung. I love the Irish fiddle! You need only watch for a moment or two if time is scarce, just to get the idea of the tune.
The third way involved drinking to the health of the apple trees in the orchards to ensure a good crop in the coming year. This ancient rite was well known in the counties of Devon, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and other parts of the West Country where apple growing for cider production was common. It generally took place on Twelfth Night –which is generally thought of as being January 6th but, more correctly, it was the evening of January 5th. Sometimes, it was as late as January 17th, which was known as Old Twelfth Night (or Old Twelvey Night).
There are many customs associated with this event, from many different areas, just as there are different recipes for the brew. In one tradition, families and friends would eat hot cakes and drink cider before going into the orchard with more supplies. A cake soaked in cider would be laid at the point where the tree forked and more cider splashed onto it. The men fired guns into the tree and banged on pots and pans while the rest of the group sang the Wassail Song. This rite was intended to ward off evil spirits and encourage good spirits to ensure a good harvest the following year.
Another custom involved carrying the wassail bowl into the orchard, where the apple trees would be alternately serenaded and threatened. Singing, dancing and drinking (the latter for people and trees) continued until, finally, the trees were threatened with an axe if they did not produce an excellent crop in the coming year. There are several songs related to this type of ceremony, so here’s the opening verse from two of them:
‘Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
And this one:
‘Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow
Hats full! caps full!
And my pockets full, too, huzza!’
I get the impression that the people really, really wanted a good harvest the following year.
The photo below is a modern re-enactment of a similar ritual:
Most Wassail ceremonies today, as in past times, vary from area to area, but there seems to be a roughly similar order for the service. Generally, a wassail queen (and/or) king leads the procession and singing on the way from one orchard to another. The queen is lifted up in order to place pieces of toast soaked in wassail from a clay cup in the boughs of the tree. This is intended as a gift to the tree, but also to represent the apples formed there the previous year:
Then a song is sung or incantation recited – like those above – and this one:
‘Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
‘Til apples come another year.’
Here are another couple of YouTube videos to show how wassailing is celebrated in some areas. The Green Man, in the last video, is a traditional figure from pagan folklore. Many churches built in the Middle Ages have a little carving of him, generally in a non-too-obvious place. I mentioned him in my post about Fountains Abbey back in October, as there’s a little sculpture of him there, above a high, outside window. Even as late as the 11th and 12th centuries in Christian England, long-held pagan beliefs still lingered. Long associated with the forests, it stands to reason that many wassail ceremonies included the Green Man. I intend to write a post about him sometime soon – if my daughter, Louise, doesn’t get there first. She has her own photo of him at Fountains Abbey on the post I’ve linked to here.
As with the Wassail Song above, the second video below needs only a quick look to see what the Green Man looks like, dressed in his finery. The first video shows one version of the wassail ceremony in an apple orchard. There are several other YouTube videos online – all from different areas.
Wassailing seems to be particularly English, but I came across one ceremony elsewhere that seemed very similar . . .
In Romania, the housewife would knead her special holiday dough in the kitchen. On his way to the orchard, her husband would pass through the house in a terrible temper. She followed him as he passed among the trees, threatening each barren one with being cut down. The wife would ask him to spare this one or that, by saying: ‘Oh no, I’m sure this tree will be as heavy with fruit next year as my hands are with dough this day.’
I’m sure I’d find several others, if I looked hard enough.