Wassail - Fire, Fruit & Fun
Wassail is a folk tradition in England that is very much separate from the Wassail people around the world are familiar with. Rather than going door to door at Christmas with a “Wassail bowl” - a custom that mutated to Carol singing – here in the cider producing counties of old Mercia they do things very differently.
I visited Westons Cider at Much Marcle in Herefordshire to experience the Wassail held there each year on or around Twelfth Night, or Epiphany, an event organised and led by the Silurian Morris Side, a “Border Style” Morris troupe or “Side”. The Master of Ceremonies gives a humorous speech with instructions for the gathered crowd before the dancers give their first short performance, which concludes with them dancing off, leading the procession. Torches are lit and the crowd process either through the fields or through the cider press, depending on the weather, to the orchards where a circle is formed around the oldest apple tree.
Traditionally the crowd are instructed by the MC to process widdershins – anticlockwise – around the trees with their torches three times but with a larger crowd they simply turn on the spot. Cider is poured into the old tree's roots and then toasted bread is placed around the trunk, these are offerings with which to urge the apple trees to give a bountiful harvest this year, traditionally in an act of feeding and appeasing the spirits of the place. In most cases the spirit is personified by the “Apple Tree Man”, a fabled figure who watches over an orchard, a kind of Green Man. The MC interjects often with jokes and banter and the crowd sing a lively song to reinforce the positive intent. In addition to this the “bad spirits” of the place are shooed away by chanting and drumming. At many Wassails, Much Marcle included, a couple of local chaps will fire shotguns across the tree-tops to put a big kick into this good-natured exorcism of negative energy. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to me, the guns weren't fired this year.
Part of the Wassail traditions included the burning of “Apostle Bushes”, these represent the twelve apostles of the New Testament and a big “boo hiss” was reserved for the torching of the Judas bush. If this sounds like something tacked on by the church to somehow “Christianise” a pagan custom you'd be wrong, as such details were gradually brought in by the common people who observed the occasion themselves, so it would be more accurate to call the Wassail we have today a “folk tradition” rather than a pagan ritual. The origins definitely lie in pre-Christian pagan practises but the small Christian elements grew around them, rather like ivy around an oak. Nobody forced anybody to do things a certain way.
A Wassail Bowl is then passed around by the MC and, for obvious reasons, is only symbolically held up for a few folks to mime drinking from it. With a final dance by the Morris men the ceremony is over and the assembled throngs are free to consume the fantastic range of ciders on offer at Westons! I think cider and sausages are probably the only way to celebrate the end of such a ritual, although the ubiquitous hot mulled cider is very popular.
So with that said about the ritual, what of its origins? The word Wassail derives from the Old English “waes hael”, an Anglo-Saxon greeting meaning “fare well” or “be well” and there is a reference to a Wassail bowl being used ceremonially in the Historia Brittonum from the 800s, then again in the Historia Regum Brittaniae in 1138. These mentions may be part of fables but demonstrate that the practise of the drinking bowl and the greeting was a reality. As the later Medieval Era went on the drink in the bowl would be a mix of cider, mead, eggs and exotic spices, offered round once a year by the lord of a manor to his attendants and yeomans. Today's egg nog probably evolved from this.
The apple Wassail is another story though, with no clear origin to it, and the earliest written reference is contained in a poem from the 1600s where it is also seemingly carried out in plum orchards. When the pagan Anglo-Saxons gradually assumed stewardship of England's orchards they would no doubt have observed some kind of ceremony to appease their spirits so our Wassail is a probable ancestor of this. I personally think that the custom never ceased from then but was a more private affair that may have been carried out in parallel to the more celebratory Wassail bowl custom which had very little in the way of spiritual elements.
It is amazing to think that the crowds carrying torches as part of the procession at Westons Cider are treading in the footsteps of ancestors across a thousand years, wearing a path that will hopefully be worn for many centuries to come. Wassail!
If you like these posts you'll probably like my book The Mystery Of Mercia, available at this link -
Torchlit procession to the orchards
The MC begins proceedings
At the orchards offerings are given
An Apostle Bush
Silurian Morris man
Toasted bread is fed to the apple tree
There is something about a torchlit procession that creates a real energy, with everyone feeling as part of something bigger
Men of the Silurian Border Morris Side enjoying a well-earned cider