Wassail away!

GLASTONBURY, United Kingdon – If it’s mid-January in certain parts of the UK, it must be time for Wassail – the custom in which orchards (apple and pear) are celebrated, evil spirits are sent packing, and a jolly time is had by all, fuelled by not a little cider.

The word ‘wassail’ itself comes from the Saxon: Wæs þu hæl, meaning “be thou hale (healthy)” and it’s mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. There are claims that the drink itself is a cousin of the spiced Roman hypocras, but it is also found in the form of a drink named Lambs’ Wool. Here, roasted crab apples are placed in ale so that they fluff up and explode.

The ‘Wassail cup’ itself is an old custom – there’s a mention of it in the 13th century. It’s described as being served with small pieces of bread floating in it (there’s a claim that this is the origin of the term to ‘toast’ someone). A later Somerset folk tale relates the story of the Apple Tree Man: the spirit of the oldest tree in the orchard, who is given the farmer’s last glass of cider and shows him where treasure is buried, in gratitude.

There are three kinds of Wassailing: house-wassailing, orchard-wassailing, and cattle wassailing, in which the wassail bowl was taken into the cattle byre. Fire wassailing was also practiced in some places – here, lighted torches carried around the orchards, but this custom has died out these days. Orchard wassailing is found mainly in regions where apple and pear orchards are found: such as the South West of the UK – Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset, and Jersey.

Bridport Community Orchard Wassail [Photo Credit: Stephen and Helen Jones CCBY-SA 2.0]

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with the decline in agricultural labour and the rise of urban populations, Wassailing has become an excuse for a family evening out. An increasing number of farms arrange Wassailing events in mid-January, usually around Old Twelfth Night on the 17th. In earlier times, Christmas itself would end on the 5th of January, at Epiphany, and Wassailing would commence from this date onwards. Once held on farms, Wassailing has now spread to many of the new community orchards springing up across the country, on allotments, and, as we shall see below, in a number of nationally owned country house estates. And the capital is not exempt. One ceremony is held annually by theatre group The Lion’s Part outside the Globe Theatre, centring around the figure of the Green Man, portrayed by actor David Risley. This performance is conducted close to Twelfth Night, closely associated with Wassailing at the end of the Christmas season. Risley told The Londonist that:

“My role is tough to explain, and it continues to evolve. It is just to be a presence, a sort of earth bound god. A presence that has come from nature and will dissolve back into the nature.”

The Green Man is piped across the Millennium Bridge, accompanied by bacchanal revellers such as Beelzebub (it might be best described as a theologically eclectic event!) and the Wassail itself is followed by a mumming play, a revised take on the old mumming performance of St George and the Dragon.

Wassailing, in 2024, is being revisited by the national press; Natalie Paris attended a wassailing near Bath and told the Daily Telegraph that:

“Those who had come to wassail liked the idea of celebrating community and man’s connection with nature; values some feared were being lost in modern Western society, where technology and globalisation can leave people isolated and distrustful.”

National Trust manager Tom Boden at Dyrham Park, one of a number of National Trust properties holding Wassail ceremonies of their own, said:

“It was all a bit bonkers and an antidote to the grey of January. Children loved seeing traditional instruments that they wouldn’t normally see, like concertinas and melodeons.”

Wassailing in Wales is often merged with the old Twelfth Night celebrations centred around the horse skulled figure of the Mari Lwyd, an image that is becoming increasingly popular in Pagan circles, particularly among members of the Druidic community. Some years ago, the town of Chepstow held an annual event featuring a large number of Mary Lwyds and the ‘grey mare’ has made it over the border, too.

Morris Dancers at Bewdley Wassail 2012 [Image Credit: P. Dixon

We asked some of our contacts whether they had attended a Wassailing ceremony themselves:

“I was at the Gower Wassail, and was struck once again by how here in Wales the essentially Saxon custom of wassail and the Welsh Mari Lwyd tradition go together so sweetly. Nothing like a mayhem of Maris to wake up the apple trees!” (Chris Poote, ‘gwerinwr,’ folk culture participant).

Esoteric practitioner Adela Terrell attended a Wassail at Morden Hall Park, owned by the National Trust:

“A small group of intrepid wassailers banged their biscuit tins, while the local dog walkers looked on in bemusement.”

“… it was in the Walled Garden Orchard of the Tremough campus of Falmouth and Exeter Universities. It was as ever popular with students, also a few staff and locals. I did like it, mainly because it happened at all.. because I’d got this annual event (re)started a few years back while I was in post as the two universities’ Pagan Chaplain; Plus I brought the crew behind it together with another crew who later turned up with lots of funding to do a similar wassail in the same location; Plus even now over a year since I was fired as ‘official’ pagan chaplain for supporting students in an eco-inspired sit in and can no longer be an official organiser, there is still such appetite for these events that they keep happening.

This year I’d really stepped back from organising and holding the space, and was trying to attend just as a supportive ‘punter’.. but still – just in case – I had a firelighter in my pocket (which was needed); Plus I was called upon (as the Mock Mayor’s ‘spiritual adviser’ and ‘Rebel Chaplain of Tremough’) to give a blessing, which I managed to offer without preparation, and was told it was great, especially the bringing together the seasonal, the spiritual, the scientific and the practical… I especially liked also that the Universities’ new young Biodiversity Protection Officer attended and he expressed great appreciation for the drawing together of rejuvenated Cornish culture with nature connection in these historic campus gardens. He comes from India and is super interested to learn about the local cultural parallels with the Indian indigenous traditions he had been more familiar with. All in all a lovely little event again, the youth are hanging out for this stuff and it’s wonderful to see them gradually stepping up to take on roles, play music etc.” (Zoe Young, Pantheist).

“I went to a private Wassail hosted by a member of my Morris Side at their home in the North East of England. It was glorious! Aside from the customary banging of pots and pans, with men and women circling the apple tree in opposite directions, there was live music, singing and, of course, morris dancing in the courtyard with two local sides attending. The apple tree was decked with fairy lights and slices of toast held with red thread and children sitting in the branches playing the role of birds.” (Jennifer Susan Uzzell, Druid and academic)

“I did the Fleece Inn wassail in Evesham. All in the dark with torches and lights. One thing of note is that I took a Chinese guest along who took great pleasure in telling us how similar the wassailing was to Chinese festivities in rural villages.” (Adrian Middleton, writer on folklore).

The Wild Hunt is not responsible for links to external content.

To join a conversation on this post:

Visit our The Wild Hunt subreddit! Point your favorite browser to https://www.reddit.com/r/The_Wild_Hunt_News/, then click “JOIN”. Make sure to click the bell, too, to be notified of new articles posted to our subreddit.

Comments are closed.