I’ve been living in ignorance. No great surprise there, maybe. Specifically though, I’ve been living in ignorance about Wassail. I always thought it was something to do with Christmas and that ‘Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green’ was a carol – even though the chorus includes the line ‘And God send you a Happy New Year’. To be fair, we automatically say ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’; I thought it was all part and parcel of the same thing.
Not so. It’s completely different. And also completely irrelevant, you may think – after all, who goes wassailing these days?
Well, it turns out that quite a number of people do, particularly in traditional apple-growing areas such as the West of England and the Welsh borders. And so…welcome to my world! Here in woolly-back Wales my singing group has been practising a melodious piece called ‘The Apple Tree’ so that we can go and stand in a field and address a tree. This ditty is not to be confused with the old English Christmas song we learned in December, which (weirdly) was called ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’. Or, as we irreverently referred to it: ‘Jesus Christ! The apple tree!’ That had to be one of the strangest song titles ever but no doubt there’s a reason for it…
Anyway, back to Wassail. As far as I’m aware the earliest people we have any real knowledge of (their traditions and beliefs, at least) are the good old Celts, who arrived on this sceptred isle as long ago as 2000 BC. It turns out that the Celts revered the apple tree, amongst others. To them the apple stood for purity and goodwill, as well as fertility and the bounty of life. Because following the blossom came the apple, a most delicious fruit; and from the tree that just kept on giving, the apple could be made into cider!
There are definite turning-points in the timeline of the British Isles: the arrival of the Romans; the departure of the Romans; the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons; the first Viking attacks; and – the biggie – the Norman invasion. Every new group to invade or settle brought its own beliefs, superstitions and cultures. Irrespective of the religion they followed, what many of these incomers had in common was a sense of the natural scheme of things. Celebrating the seasons, harvest-time and the renewal of life was at the heart of most societies, so new influences would often merge with existing festivals. As the Celts weren’t the only ones who held the apple in high esteem it’s not surprising that over the centuries a specific feast evolved that celebrated the tree and its fruit.
So how did the celebration gain its name? The origin of the word Wassail is the Anglo-Saxon term wæs þu hæl, which is pre-Norman and means ‘be whole’, another way of wishing ‘good health’. The arrival of Christianity did nothing to diminish the popularity of the custom, which eventually settled down to a definite date – Twelfth Night. William the Bastard came and conquered and politically the country changed almost out of all recognition – but Wassail, like many other ground roots aspects of life, continued. By now the language here was Middle English and the old Anglo-Saxon phrase had been replaced by waes hael.
At some time the nature of the festival began to change. What had been a toast to the apple trees as an exhortation to thrive and produce a good crop that year grew into a different tradition between lords and serfs, whereby the serfs acclaimed the lord and asked for blessings on him and the lord rewarded the serfs with food and drink. Over the centuries this custom became more stylised, with specific recipes being used. Commonly the Wassail drink contained all sorts of ingredients such as cider, fruit, nuts and so on, and regional variations slowly evolved.
Which brings us to the two main differences: more and more often the celebration would take place in a home, where the Wassail bowl was carried into the room with great ceremony and music, or revellers would go from house to house demanding treats – exactly like carol singing except that you get to drink mulled cider instead of being given left-over coins at the door in an attempt to send you on your way (the source of my confusion, possibly). There are many accounts of Wassailing parties of drunken young men causing mayhem, which may have led eventually to the drop in popularity of the custom.
But the other, more ancient idea of Wassailing remained and was all about the tree and the apple harvest. People would gather at a farm or orchard, hang pieces of toasted bread on the apple tree branches, sing songs, bang drums, lift young women up into the trees (!) and so on. The idea of all this was to waken the tree, scare away any evil spirits that might be lurking, and to ensure a good harvest. Everyone would enjoy a good knees-up, stuff themselves silly and drink so much cider that they no doubt got to celebrate the notion of fertility in an entirely different manner.
The popularity of Wassail, like many other ancient traditions, has waned over the last century and a half (miserable Victorians) but not died out completely. And now – again like many other ancient traditions – it is reappearing. In fact these days at Chepstow there’s a weird and wonderful event where an excitable, cider-fuelled party of Wassailers from the English side of the town meet up with a wild, cider-fuelled Mari Lwyd party from the Welsh side. They get together in the centre of the bridge over the River Wye after separate celebrations, and thoroughly enjoy themselves. It’s described on their website chepstowwassailmari.co.uk and this year is on 16th January, which is the closest Saturday to old Twelfth Night on 17th January (as Wassail began back in the mists of time, it’s still celebrated according to the old Julian Calendar).
So you have no excuse: in the interests of a good apple harvest this year, get yourselves out there, find an apple tree and sing to it!
Health to thee old apple tree and well to bear
Pocketfuls hatfuls capfuls great bushel bagfuls