Here We Come A-Wassailing

Prelude to a Wassail. Broadmarsh Morris Men perform outside tha White Horse before heading for the orchard. Author: Glyn Baker. Creative Commons
Prelude to a Wassail. Broadmarsh Morris Men perform outside the White Horse before heading for the orchard. Author: Glyn Baker. Creative Commons

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.

Sharing a Wassail bowl on Twelfth Night. Author Tracey P. Creative Commons
Sharing a Wassail bowl on Twelfth Night. Author Tracey P. Creative Commons

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:

Wassail bowl in Ulster Museum. Made of turned lignum vitae, originally belonging to the Chichester family, Earls of Donegal. Aythor: Bazonks. Creative Commons
Wassail bowl in Ulster Museum.  Made of turned lignum vitae, originally belonging to the Chichester family, Earls of Donegal. Author: Bazonka. Creative Commons

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:

A pot of wassail. (7 pints of brown ale, bottle of dry sherry, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, lemon slices). Author: Jeremy Tarling, UK. Uploaded by LongLiveRock. Commons
A pot of wassail. (7 pints of brown ale, bottle of dry sherry, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, lemon slices). Author: Jeremy Tarling, UK. Uploaded by LongLiveRock. Creative Commons.

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’.

Rowena offering the Wassail Cup to Vortigen. Artist: Joanna Mary Bryce 1831-61. Public domain
Rowena offering the Wassail Cup to Vortigen. Artist: Joanna Mary Bryce 1831-1861. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

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, 
Peck-fulls, bushel-bag-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!
Bushel-bushel-sacks 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:

Broadmarsh Morris men beating the apple trees with sticks to drive out evil spirits that may spoil the crop. Author: Glyn Baker. Creative Commons
Broadmarsh Morris men beating the apple trees with sticks to drive out evil spirits that may spoil the crop. Author: Glyn Baker.  Creative Commons

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:

A "virgin" hangs cider soaked toast in the branches of the tree. The robins will eat the toast and carry away any evil soaked up by the toast. Author: Glyn Baker. Creative Commons
A “virgin” hangs cider soaked toast in the branches of the tree. The robins will eat the toast and carry away any evil soaked up by the toast. Author: Glyn Baker. Creative Commons

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.



The Guardian

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

96 thoughts on “Here We Come A-Wassailing

    1. Yes, that’s true of many families. Epiphany was always an important day in the Christian Church. My mum would never take the tree out or decorations down until the 6th. I think people nowadays simply like to get their homes back to some state of normality once work and school starts again. So many mothers are going back to work before the 6th themselves. But it’s nice to keep the holiday going as long as possible. 🙂

      1. He gets fed up with most music I play rather quickly. Or it could be the volume he objects to. . .! Ha ha. Well, I’ll find something else tomorrow – give him a change. 😀

      2. He loves to read, and so do I. but I do like music, and lots of different types. Nick is very selective in his music tastes. I’ll play something he likes tomorrow, like Strauss – which I like, too. 🙂

    1. I had no idea who David Archuleta was until I looked him up. I see he’s quite a idol amongst teenagers over there, so I can see why you like him. He has got a great voice. I only knew the women in the video. They’re part of an all-women Irish group called ‘Celtic Woman’. The fiddlers are all part of their group, I believe. This concert was filmed in the U.S. so they’ve obviously got together with singers over there. And how great it all sounds. I love it! I’ll be checking out your posts asap. I’m ‘on the rounds’, as they say. Best wishes for a Happy New Year! Millie

  1. That’s really fascinating Millie, I’d heard of the idea of wassailing, but I didn’t realise it was connected to Christmas and the twelfth night. Anything connected to the ‘Green Man’ always seems extra fascinating to me.

    1. Thanks, Andy. Stories about the Green Man are fascinating, and I will get round to posting some very soon. Even if Louise does it too, she’s likely to have a different perspective to me, so we won’t overlap too much. The idea of wassailing seems comical to us today – all that beating the trees and such like. But pagan belief in evil spirits were strong. Hope you had a great Christmas. I noticed you hadn’t posted for a while, either. 🙂

      1. It’s so true about how people often mock the ‘old’ ways, but often they make more sense than some of the more modern things we believe in!
        We had a wonderful Christmas and New Year thanks Millie, albeit a quiet evening on the 31st 🙂 And you’re right, I hardly managed to get on the pc over the Christmas period, which was quite pleasant in itself!
        Thanks for putting the link through to Louise’s blog, her latest photos of Fountain Abbey are stunning! 🙂

      2. We sat in on our own on New Year’s Eve, too. But we always do, so nothing different there. Thank you for checking Lou out. She does some of the photography challenges that you do (Cee’s, is it?). And she’s been a big fan of the Green Man since she was at Uni. She’s fascinated by all folklore, so we do have a lot in common. We all went to Fountains Abbey in October, and Lou’s photos are very good.
        I’m glad you had a good rest. Now you’ll be out on your photography trail again. Hope the weather is kind to you. 🙂

      3. it sounds like your New Year celebrations are very similar to ours Millie :-). At least this year our two oldest boys (23 and 21) went out to let in the New Year, which is a first, they normally just stay in on their computers 😦
        Your right about Louise’s competition post, it was one of Cee’s 🙂 From the brief look I had of her blog, you and her definitely have very similar tastes and interests 🙂
        I’m hoping to get out this weekend, but so far the weather is still very dreich it!!! (Cold, damp/wet and windy)

      4. Perhaps your sons are getting hooked on traditions! My dad always went out with a loaf and a pice of coal. He was chosen because he had dark hair (and I’ve no idea why that should be important). Perhaps I’ll do some resaerch on New Year’s Eve traditions around the country for next year. Thanks for being a friend of my blog these last few months, Andy. It’s much apprecaited. I’ll check your latest posts tomorrow. Hope you don’t get blown or flooded away in the meantime. 🙂

      5. Is your Dad Scottish Millie?? He was ‘first-footing’ – it’s traditional in Scotland for it to be good luck if the first person to enter your house in the new year is tall, dark haired and handsome. I’m always sent out with a piece of coal and some shortbread just after midnight (I’m tall, and used to have dark hair – so two out of three should be at least some luck!! LOL!).
        And thank you too Millie for being a great new friend 🙂

      6. Ha ha! My dad was short and half Irish, Andy – and my mum was half Welsh. (So that makes me a right old jumble!) He was dark haired and was thought of as good looking, but I think he was sent out simply because no one else wanted to strand outside in the cold! Interesting that the custom involves shortbread in Scotland – but in many ways, not surprising. And don’t demean yourself, I’m sure you have all three requirements for being the one to bring in the New Year. It’s a nice custom to keep going, anyway. 🙂

      7. Oddly enough Millie, I suspect that’s why I get sent out! Lol!! 🙂
        You certainly are quite a mix, with quite a lot of Celtic blood in you – maybe that’s where your fascination in the Vikings etc comes from 🙂

      8. I am a mix. I’m part Irish ‘Higgins’ and Welsh ‘Griffiths’ – very Celtic! Lol. My fascination with Vikings probably is my parents’ fault. They took us to see the old Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis film, ‘The Vikings’ in 1959 – when we were on holiday in the Isle of Man. Hooked ever since. 🙂

      9. Ahhhhh……..that definitely explains the fascination, I can clearly hear that horn sounding in my head even as I type this out!! A brilliant film, back in the days when films were actually quite good!!! 🙂

      10. I think the attraction for with film – with my mum , at least – was Kirk Douglas! She loved ‘Ol Dimple Chin’, as my dad called him. I loved the film, but it looks very dated when you see it today, It’s been on TV a couple of times in the last few years. 🙂

      11. I still enjoy watching it even though it’s quite dated! Lol! My Mum still calls my Dad that, because he’s also got a dimple chin, but that’s where the resemblance probably ends! Lol! But don’t tell my Dad that! 🙂

    1. Hi Lina. Thanks for the kind words about my post. I’m attempting to put together my award post now. It will be my next post to go up, but it won’t be for a couple of days. I need to catch up with some posts I’m missed over Christmas tomorrow – so we can chat again then. 🙂

  2. Another wonderful post, MIllie! I’d never heard about the tradition of threatening the apple trees so they give a good harvest the next year – very interesting. And I love the idea of the Romanian couple playing “good cop, bad cop” with the apple trees.

    I’ve had mulled cider and mulled wine, and enjoyed both, and also something my hosts called “wassail” but I don’t think there was any curdled cream in it, which sounds pretty icky to these ears. Have you had it with curdled cream, and is it actually good that way?

    1. Yes, the old recipe definitely sounds icky and I don’t intend to try it! Most modern ceremonies stick to mulled cider. Wassailing seems a strange, laughable business to us today, but it all goes back to pagan beliefs in evil spirits. The ceremonies today are all great fun, and an excuse for a good booze up! I just love the whole history of it, and the links to the Green Man are fascinating.
      I love the Romanian custom. I intend to see if I can find other customs like this from around the world. I’d probably find them restricted to Europe, but who knows?
      Thanks Joy. 🙂

      1. It doesn’t seem that laughable to me — I’m just disappointed that my own weak American version of wassailing only involved drinking and singing. Next time I get the chance, I’m definitely going to suggest banging sticks against trees to scare off the evil spirits and ensure a good harvest!

  3. I love this. What a lot of research you have done. I remember learning the lyrics to the wassailing song in about year 7. I bet the teacher would be horrified to know the history of the song and the traditions behind it. Thanks for posting.

    1. Thanks Peggy. It did take a while, but I do enjoy looking things up. It’s a fun tradition, though I’m sure many staunch Christians could find it distasteful. Teachers years ago did frown on such things, too. Bit the tradition isn’t intended to be an insult to the Church, just to celebrate bygone times – and have a good drinking session while they’re at it. 😀

    1. Thanks, Lynn. I had to do about Wassailing this year. I didn’t do much about the Christmas traditions, so that made up for some of them. I love that version of the song. They sing it so well and the fiddlers are great. 🙂

    1. The song is great! Like you, Dinata, I can’t stop singing it.I believe David Archuleta is well known in the US and the women are all part of an Irish women’s group called Celtic Woman. They all sing beautifully together. This was a fun topic to write about altogether, and many people haven’t heard of wassailing. So, a post must be worth doing if it can introduce people to something they didn’t know about. I like to read posts myself that teach me something. I love Aquileans’s blog about Greek mythology. I’ve learnt so much from that. Thank you gor the nice comment. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Freda. It’s a great version of the song, and so catchy. Wassailing probably isn’t known much outside the UK, but it’s a fun tradition and very popular in some areas. 🙂

  4. Hi Millie, I haven’t been blogside much over the Christmas period, so I’ve just caught up with all your posts! Hope you had a lovely festive holiday, and wishing you a very happy and successful New Year 2016!!

    Wassail on… 😉

    The Bloggy Hog xx

    1. Hi Angela/Hedgeblog/Bloggy Hog! (All 3 titles today). I wasn’t on my blog ovcer the Christmas, either, and still have lots of posts to catch up on. Thank you for reading some of mine. I’ve only done 2 so far since New Year. I’ll cme over and check yours tomorrow. I hope you have a wonderful 2016, too! I’m still singing the Wassailing Song. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Ali. Yes, Louise’s fascination with the Green Man goes back a long way. She’s been into folklore since she was very young. We could actually both do a post about the Green Man because we’d probably both have a different perspective. He’s an interesting character! I think Lou would win a race with me, nowadays. 🙂

    1. Probably few people do know about wassailing, outside the UK, Rockhopper. I’m sure there are a lot of people in the UK who don’t know what it is, either! The tree-bashing ceremonies are a lot of fun, and the cider-drinking is what it’s really all about! 🙂

    1. There’s certainly a lot in Britain for a history, lover to see. Many people spend an entire holiday looking at the sites in London alone. I suppose a tour to give an overview would be a good idea – but it sounds as though you’ve been here before, so perhaps you already have a head start?
      As for me, there are many places in the US I’d love to visit.As a geologist, I’m dying to get to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. So many places…
      I’m now wanting to hop over and check out your blog, but I’m in the middle od doing not one but two award posts (!) so I think it will be tomorrow. Thank you for liking my post!

  5. What a colorful tradition. Wassail is actually different than just plain apple cider which is what I though it was. I am all for warding off the evil spirits and encouraging the good ones. Threatening the apple trees is humorous, who knows, it may work 🙂 I would like to threaten a certain tree in my backyard to stop dropping acorns, they are all over the place! Great post!

    1. Yes, we have a couple of trees in our garden that could do with a good wallop. But they’re relatively young and still need to learn how to do things properly. Perhaps a few pieces of cider-soaked toast will help. 🙂 Thanks, L.T.

  6. I have heard of Wassail bowls before, but did not know the tradition behind it. They sound similar to ale bowls in Scandinavia! And Epiphany meant nothing to me until I read your post! They are wonderful old customs and it is great to see that people are still keen to continue it! I would not mind the cider myself, as it sounds awfully similar to gluhwein or glogg! The green man is very interesting but I have to say a bit weird….. and the toast in the tree – enough said!!!

    1. The link between Viking and Anglo Saxon culture is very strong, so it’s not surprising they share many customs. The Angles came to Britain from Jutland – where the ‘Danes’ came from. The Viking god, Odin, was called Woden by the Anglo-Saxons. Many modern British people love to keep traditions going. We do love our history, and tend to live in the past (well, I do, anyway. 🙂 ) If gluhwein and glogg are made from apples, I imagine they will be very similar. I’ll have to look those up. And the Green Man is pretty weird, but very interesting. As for the soggy toast… I totally agree with you about that! 🙂

      1. I think the gluhwein etc has a different base ( grapes or red wine?) but the cinnamon cloves nutmeg etc additions are the same. Oden= Woden = Wednesday, named after Woden, right?

      2. Yes, Wednesday is Wodensday, just as Thursday if Thorsday etc.:) I’m not a fan of spiced or mulled wine. I prefer cider and wine as they are! But I wouldn’t mind trying a gluhwein, just so I know for myself.

      3. Ha ha. No, summer on the ski slopes is very green, but also very beautiful. I’ve never been lucky enough to go skiing and I’d still love to do it.

    1. I’d never heard this version until I started looking for a YouTube video to share.I couldn’t stop singing it after hearing it once. It’s so catchy and the fiddle is amazing. I’m glad you liked it, too! 🙂

  7. Hi Millie, I had never heard of wassailing until we moved down here and then thought it a Cornish ‘thing’. So good to have some info on it and find out we’re not just wassailing down here 🙂

  8. Millie, I’ve sung the Wassail Song many times with no idea of its history. Now, I’ll share it the next time I hear the tune. You make history very interesting for those of us not that well-read in the times.. I wonder if The Green Man was inspiration for The Hulk?

    1. Celtic Women are wonderful – lovely voices. I’d never heard of them before, but once I found the video I showed, I spent some time listening to more of their music. The fiddle always gets to me, too. When you did your wassailing, did you beat a few apple trees with sticks? 🙂

      1. I have seen Celtic Women performance twice. They are amazing!
        Oh, the wassailing took place in the days of my youth 🙂 We didn’t get any followers, and were not much welcomed 🙂

      2. Wassailing has come back into fashion in recent years due to the renewed popularity of cider. There are a lot of wassailing groups in the south of England and several in the Midlands – and even some in Wales. I don’t know about Ireland – I’ll have to check that out. It looks fun on all the YouTube videos I found online. The history of it is just so interesting. I love these old customs and traditions. 🙂

      3. They do bring people together. They are wonderful social occasions and a lot of fun. Wassailng is particularly good for such a dark and dreary time of year. 😀

  9. How interesting it is! If you haven’t mentioned wassailing here, I don’t think I would have a chance to hear anything about it. It seems very fun to do such a ritual! I really love the modern version of The Wassail song. It is very uplifting and certainly puts me in a mood to dance 😉 You did a fantastic job on this post Millie! 🙂 🙂 🙂

  10. It is a lovely and a completely new thing to know for me! I cannot help admiring the royalty in every breath of England. The wassail kings and queens leading the group and good wishes scattered in the air for everyone would probably make an adorable sight.
    And I loved all the 3 ways of celebrating but the last one is really interesting. It somehow reminds me of the festival ‘Lohri’ celebrated here in northern India – especially Punjab. And yes, they really wanted a great harvest 😁
    A well researched and lovely piece of writing 😃

    1. Thanks, Prateek. I find the idea of wassailing really fascinating, too – and I’m English! I think it’s the beating of the trees I find the funniest. But old beliefs and superstitions lie behind so many of our customs. Interesting how we can always find similar customs around the world. Lohri sounds a really interesting and fun event. Perhaps you should do a post about that the next time it comes around. 🙂

      1. Hehe so true! And I surely will, Millie. Though it just went a few days back (13th Jan), but I can do a post on it still, right? 🙂
        I will let you know once I do that. Till then, you better concentrate on your book so that we get to read them soon ^_^

  11. Reblogged this on Millie Thom and commented:

    Here we are again on Twelfth Night, with no excuse whatsoever for continuing Christmas festivities after today. Very soon we’ll be seeing Easter Eggs in the shops! Oh my . . . Anyway, I decided to reblog this post from last year because I just love the version of the song, ‘Here We Come A Wassailing’ by Celtic Woman and David Archuleta and today is a good day for me to annoy everyone in our house by repeatedly singing it. I also love the whole idea of the Green Man (and have been intending to write a post about him since last Jauary!). So here’s the post . . .

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