From Saxon Sirens to Sacred Orchards: The Modern Traditions and Pagan Origins of Wassailing
Every January, in parts of rural England, people still gather to celebrate Wassailing, a tradition with distinctly Pagan origins intended to bless the coming year’s apple crops and protect orchards from evil spirits. It’s an intriguing part of the ongoing connection between the present day and folklore but the roots of Wassailing stretch back even further. Back to the time when the Roman Empire’s hold on their province of Britannia was collapsing and how, in the years before King Arthur, a Saxon princess seduced a British king and opened the way to an invasion that changed the country forever!
Wassailing can be a confusing concept as it actually applies to two separate traditions: the house-visiting wassail and the orchard-visiting wassail. The house-visiting wassail was the pre-Christmas/Yuletide practice of people going from door-to-door in a village singing songs in exchange for food, or a few coins and, ideally, the offer of a drink (usually mulled cider) from the wassail bowl.
Some of you may recall the Christmas carol…
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Which also includes the lines:
We are not daily beggars who beg from door to door
But we are friendly neighbors whom you’ve seen before.
A pot of wassail (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Not surprisingly, in bygone days the local wealthy farmers and lords of the manor were the prime targets for visits by wassailers although if they refused to donate anything or were felt to have been stingy, they risked being abused or even having their property vandalized, in much the same way disgruntled Halloween “trick or treaters” might egg someone’s house.
However, during the Victorian era (the Victorians were great ones for sanitizing old customs, particularly those that could get out of hand) Yuletide wassailing gave way to the more genteel style of “caroling” (or carol singing) we have today.
Wassailing revelers (Public Domain)
And then there is the orchard-visiting wassail. This usually takes place on either Twelfth Night (in the UK the 5 th of January) or on Old Twelfth Night (or “Old Twelvey”) on the 17th January, which is when Twelfth Night would have taken place before the current Gregorian Calendar was introduced in 1752. (Yes, over 260 years later these things still matter in the UK.) To add to the confusion, in some areas orchard wassailing takes place on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night and the traditional resumption of agricultural work after the Christmas break). And, this being the modern family-friendly world, in reality the festivities now frequently take place on the nearest Saturday!
The nature of the festivities varies from location to location, as do the numbers attending, varying from dozens to hundreds in some instances. The hot-spots for celebrations are the traditional apple growing areas of the West of England (Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire), along with Kent, and East Anglia (Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex). In fact, the oldest recorded mention of apple wassailing took place at Fordwich, Kent, in AD 1585.
Wassailing involves music, singing, cider drinking, bonfires, and varieties of “mumming” (including performances by “Molly Men”, “Morris Dancers”, and/or traditional plays.) However, the core element common to all orchard wassailing is the ritual of waking up the spirits of the apple trees from their winter dormancy for the new growing season, while simultaneously scaring away any evil spirits or witches that might blight a good harvest of fruit the following autumn.
Wassailing at the orchard (Public Domain)
Proceedings are led by a wassail king and queen, with the wassail queen first “dressing” a favorite apple tree by tying either ribbons or strips of colored cloth onto its branches along with cake or toasted bread soaked in cider or “wassail” (mulled cider) as a gift to the tree spirits and to show appreciation for the fruits of the previous year. In some areas, the toast and ribbons are hung on the branches of a sapling rather than a mature tree and there is a suggestion the toast was originally to attract the birds that would help pollinate the apple blossom.
Tree decorated with bread and ribbon (Via author)
The wassail king will then lead the crowd in chanting the following incantation, there are widespread regional variations however this one dates from 1791:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
That blooms well, bears well.
We all come to wassail thee!
Hats full, caps full
Three bushel sacks full
A little heap under the stairs
And my pockets full too!
Hip! Hip! Hooray!