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21st December, Wassail

December 21, 2011
by Paul Bommer

There are several related traditions of “Wassail.” Firstly, wassailing is an ancient Southern English custom performed to ensure a good crop of cider apples next year, yet wassail also refers both to the salute “Waes Hail” (a contraction of the Middle English phrase “wæs hæil” meaning”good health”), and also to the drink of “wassail” which is a hot mulled cider drunk. The giving of libations and the pouring of a drink as an offering was common in many religions of antiquity.

In the cider-producing counties in the South West of England, wassailing involves singing and drinking the health of the orchards – the purpose being to awaken the cider apple trees and scare away evil spirits, ensuring a good harvest next year. The ceremonies vary from village to village but all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song from one orchard to the next, and the wassail Queen will be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she will place toast soaked in wassail from a “Clayen Cup” as a gift to the tree spirits. Then an incantation is recited –

Here’s to thee, old apple tree, That blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An’ all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!

At Carhampton near Minehead, the apple orchard Wassailing is held on the Old Twelfth Night (17th January) as a ritual to ask God for a good apple harvest. The villagers form a circle around the largest apple tree, hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins who represent the good spirits of the tree and then a shotgun is fired overhead to scare away evil spirits and the group sings –

Old Apple tree, old apple tree,
We’ve come to wassail thee,
To bear and to bow apples enow,
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full,
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs

My partner’s surname is Appleton – a name of Anglo-Saxon origin, originating from many of the places thus called, for example Appleton in Cumberland, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Norfolk, Cheshire, Berkshire and Kent. Recorded as “Apeltun” and “Epletune” in the Domesday Book of 1086 for the various counties, it derives from the Old English pre-seventh century “aeppeltun,” an orchard, a compound of “aeppel,” an apple, plus “tun,” an enclosure or settlement. Here I have shown two of Nick’s ancestors in the Kentish orchard from which they got their name. They wear Anglo-Saxon garb (note Aethelwulf Aeppeltun’s garnet-encrusted cloak broach), drinking ale or cider from horns and making merry on this, the shortest day of the year. Note too the drink-soaked crust in the branches, the dormant skep in the orchard and the tipsy Robin Redbreast looking on. Behold, the birth of the English binge-drinking culture.

Wassail! Drink Hale!

Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer

One Response leave one →
  1. Steven Aelfcyning permalink
    November 28, 2016

    Thanks for your article. I’m researching ideas for updating my own wassail party again this year. We revived the tradition in Berkeley, California, about 30 years ago and it’s still going strong. Love your illustration! 🙂


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