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!
Everyone drinks a toast to the health of the apple tree – English rural customs really do involve a lot of cider drinking. (Note, this is hard cider, the alcoholic drink we are talking about, not apple juice. In fact, the UK has the world’s highest per capita consumption of cider, which is why holding a wassail on a Saturday night is popular as everyone can sleep off their hangovers the following day.) Then, as the wassail king pours cider on the tree’s roots, everyone else dances around the tree in a circle making as much noise as possible (to wake up the sleeping tree spirits, as well as scare off the evil spirits) by shouting, singing, stamping their feet, banging drums if they have them, banging pots and pans if they don’t, until finally the “gunsmen” end the ritual by firing a volley of shots into the air just to disperse any lingering witches.
Gunsmen scared off ‘witches’ by firing into the night. (Public Domain)
Today, the gunsmen will be local farmers firing off shotguns but members of military re-enactment groups firing “black powder” muskets are a popular alternative. Another recent innovation – apple wassailing almost died out in the mid-20th century but has made a popular comeback in recent years – is for children to dress in scary costumes (yes, an opportunity to re-use those Halloween costumes) to frighten the bad spirits away.
It is all distinctly non-Christian in tone, with a strong element of sympathetic magic involved – one early 20th century anthropologist even suggested it was more like tree worship, with the cider representing the life-giving “blood” of the sacred apple orchards. And, the fact it takes place at around the same time as so many midwinter turn-of-the year/turn-of-the seasons celebrations only underlines the fundamentally pagan origins of orchard wassailing.
A Green Man toasts the health during wassailing tradition (CC BY-SA 2.0)
That said, most people attending a modern wassailing are only there for the entertainment nevertheless many go away pondering two questions: why is cider apple growing so important? And, what does the word “wassail” mean anyway?
The Wassail Roots
The first question is easy to answer: before reliable, fresh, clean water supplies were widely available in rural areas, it was more convenient (and much safer) to take a jug of cider with you out to the fields for refreshment while you were doing manual labor than it was to drink water. In 1841, 22 percent of England’s workforce were employed in agriculture (compared with just one percent today) so that was a lot of thirsty throats to slake with cider.
As for the answer to the second question, this takes us into the realms of early English history. The Old English phrase “was hael” meant “be hale,” “be in good health” or “be fortunate” and, while originally used as a simple salute or greeting, it very quickly developed into a drinking formula where one person would say “was hail” and the other reply “drink hail”. By the eighth century, the word was so well-known that it appeared in the epic poem “ Beowulf”…
The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.
It is also reported that on the dawn of the Battle of Hastings in AD 1066, the Saxons toasted each other with shouts of wassail before they marched off to fight the Normans.
Rejoice and wassail
Pass the bottle and drink healthy
Drink backwards and drink to me
Drink half and drink empty.
Post-medieval miniature tankard: Cast pewter ‘toy’ loving cup or wassail bowl with casting seams below the handles and across the base of cup. (The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum)
However, tradition tells that the very first occurrence of the use on the word wassail in England dates back to AD 449, when the Roman Empire’s hold on its province of Britannia had collapsed.
Warlord Vortigern, The Userper King of the Britons
The rot had set in from as early as AD 383 when Magnus Maximus, a Roman general stationed in Britain, had moved his troops to Gaul in what would prove to be an unsuccessful attempt to seize the imperial throne in Rome. In the years that followed, more legions departed the island, either to reinforce the defenses of Italy or in further imperial power struggles. The culmination came in AD 410 when the Emperor Honorius wrote to the provinces Roman cities telling them they were now on their own and would have to organize their own defenses.
Into the power vacuum stepped local warlords and, by around AD 425, a shadowy character call Vortigern had established himself as the “King of the Britons” – this historian Gildas, writing less than a century later, described Vortigern as “that proud usurper”. (A later chronicler was even less flattering, calling him “a man calculated neither for the field nor the council, but wholly given up to the lusts of the flesh, the slave of every vice: a character of insatiable avarice, ungovernable pride, and polluted by his lust.”) In 447, Vortigern invited a group of “fierce and impious” Saxon mercenaries led by two brothers – Hengist and Horsa – to help him fight the Picts, who were invading Britain from north of Hadrian’s Wall.
Merlin reads his prophecies to King Vortigern. (Public Domain)
In return for their services, the Saxons (technically they were Jutes from Jutland) were granted the Isle of Thanet (at the eastern corner of what is now the English county of Kent and then still an island) as their own territory. The Saxons duly fought for Vortigern and invited more of their fellow countryman to join them, swelling the numbers of the Thanet colony. (There is a suggestion that Vortigern had formed treaty of “foederati” with the Saxons, a late Roman political practice of settling allied barbarian peoples within the boundaries of the empire to furnish troops to aid the defense of the empire.)
Not surprisingly, the growing number of Saxons coming into Kent concerned Vortigern, who suggested that it might be time for the Saxons to now go home. However, in 449 Hengist and Horsa, joined by more Saxons from the Continent including Hengest’s beautiful daughter, the Lady Rowena, invited Vortigern to a feast to celebrate their friendship.
It was at this fateful feast that Rowena (or Ronwen, the spelling differs) approached King Vortigern with a wassail bowl, greeted the king with the salute “wassail”, drank from it – and then past it to Vortigern to drink from. And so the tradition of wassailing began – except the consequences were far more momentous than just a new drinking challenge.
Meeting of Vortigern and Rowena painted by William Hamilton (Public Domain)
Rowena wassails King Vortigern. (Public Domain)
Vortigern became obsessed with Rowena, eventually taking her for his wife – much to the annoyance of his existing wife and his daughter, who was also his mistress. (Later chroniclers depicted Rowena as a brazen temptress who seduced Vortigern.) As part of the wedding settlement, he gave Hengist and Horsa the whole kingdom of Kent – much to the annoyance of the existing King of Kent. And generally opened the way to the Saxons gaining more and more power.
Eventually war broke out between the Britons, led by Vortigern’s sons, and the Saxons, with Vortigern reduced to a puppet monarch (some accounts say he was a prisoner of the Saxons) in the invidious position of being married to the daughter of his nation’s enemy. In the fighting that followed, Vortigern’s two sons were killed, as was Horsa, and, by 455, Vortigern was holed up, along with his many wives, in a fortress in North Wales.
There, they were besieged by two British leaders who had returned from exile in Brittany (France), namely Ambrosius Aurelinus and his brother Uther Pendragon (better known to history as the father of King Arthur), the fortress was set alight – one chronicle says fire fell from Heaven and engulfed the castle – and everyone inside was burned to death.
In a neat historical twist, Ambrosius and Uther are said to have been the sons of Constans, another general with ambitions to seize the imperial throne in Rome but who had been killed as a result of Vortigern’s treachery.
As for Hengist, he continued to rule Kent until his death in AD 488 and sired a dynasty of Kentish kings. To this day, the emblem of Kent is a white horse (hengist is Old English for stallion) on a red background, said to be Hengist original battle flag.
Top image: Wassailing revelers at night – CC BY-SA 2.0
Charles Christian, (2015) ‘A travel guide to Yorkshire's Weird Wolds: The Mysterious Wold Newton Triangle’Urban Fantasist (May 8, 2015)