The tradition of wassailing is old and very English. It took place in winter, usually sometime near the New Year or near Twelfth Night but the dates vary by region so there’s really no one right night to wassail. It was and indeed is a folkloric custom that survived and persisted all the way into the modern time. The term “wassail” is of mildly contested etymology; it is from one of two sources, either from Old English or Old Norse. In either case, it has the same basic meaning. If it is from Old English it is related to wæs þu hæl or hale wese ge both of which were simultaneously greetings and blessings of health, having the general meaning of “be whole” and “be healthy”.[i] If it is from Old Norse it comes from ves heill which was a term which meant “be healthy!”.[ii] It is of no real consequence which way you go for this because both terms are rooted in the same origins and have complementary meanings – when we wassail we are wishing good health.
Wassailing followed the English all the way to America through colonization; though it has certainly not persisted as well in America as it did in its native spaces. Partly this is due to regional variation in Wassailing traditions. If your small town had the right of it, their local praxis would be a lot easier to maintain through group conformity than if fifty people from fifty different small towns each with their own “correct” but different traditional practices suddenly were crammed together in a new place with a hundred other people with no clue of what those fifty were doing or why and then try to have those hundred and fifty people maintain a tradition together. In this light it is a wonder, a minor miracle, that America maintained any folk practices at all.
This was not a practice I grew up with; my first experience of wassail was with a Madrigal dinner put on by our local high school. The singers sang about wassail and served hot cider and roast chicken while dressed in fancy medieval costumes and I found it to be one of the most magical things I had seen at that point in my then sixth-grade life. I loved it and everything to do with it from that moment on; and that was just the tip of the iceberg though because that was mimicking the door-to-door wassailing. There was a whole different type of wassailing out there.
Two Types of Wassailing
There are in a sense two main traditions of wassailing, the door-to-door wassail and the orchard wassail.
The door-to-door wassail is similar if not identical to caroling but one of the keys is that the singers more or less demand to be given food and drink in return for blessings of good health and good cheer. This can be seen in the lines in which the carolers threaten not to leave unless they are given figgy pudding. This is similar to other mummer traditions.
Orchard wassailing is of interest to me for religious reasons which should become quickly apparent. In this practice people would sing and offer to trees in their local orchards in the hopes that the orchard would produce better. Further, there is some element of making a loud racket while you’re in the orchard wassailing in order to scare off any evil spirits.
This is fabulous because it is essentially some element of animism, that they believed that they could offer to the trees in the orchard and receive back again from them. This is do ut des, this is in essence sacred reciprocity with land-spirits and it has managed to persist to modern times.
Sources for Orchard Wassailing
The earliest attested mention of orchard wassailing that I am aware of comes from the area around Kent, Fordwich to be precise. Their town records from 1566 mention a King and Queen of a festival taking place on New Year’s Eve or Twelfth Night and them having a characteristic costume, the records are specifically about the expense of the repair of the costumes so they sadly don’t describe their purpose or general look in great detail. The ceremony itself is admonished in another record in January 1576/7 whereby the ecclesiastical authorities sought to put an end to this “superstycious or old custome” of singing and knocking on the trees in the orchard with sticks. The custom officially seems to have come to an end completely though in 1579 when the ritual acutrema was all forced to be sold off by order of the town government; it included tables, benches, table cloths, a large ornamental drinking bowl or cup, as well as the costumes and things of the King and Queen.[iii]
The next mention I am aware of comes from 1648:
Waſſaile the Trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum, and many a Peare:
For more or leſſe fruits they will bring,
As you doe give them Waſſailing.[iv]
– Robert Herrick (1648)
This piece is short but it does give us some nuance that is missing from many wassail sources in that not only apple trees can or should be wassailed. Instead, any and all fruit bearing trees should be considered for wassailing. There is a sad amount of apple-centrism in wassailing, when from a truly pagan perspective it likely should instead be more about honoring whatever fruit trees (or even shrubs) you have growing.
Thoreau lists a couple interesting historical rhymes in his Wild Apples:
‘Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst, blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Bushel, bushel, sacks-full!
And my pockets full, too! Hurra!’”
“Stand fast, root! bear well, top!
Pray God send us a good howling crop:
Every twig, apples big;
Every bough, apples enow!”
These two rhymes give us a place to begin expanding on. But also Thoreau lists some traditions to go along with them such as putting toast on the trees, pouring offerings of cider out onto the roots, and the general understanding that one should sing.[v]
Using these thoughts, I have tried to maintain many of the rhymes and words from these sources but modernize them or make them less awkward to say. I don’t mind a little flair and a little antiquated speech but I prefer it to not be something I have to trip over.
A Wassail Ritual
Drum or bang on pots and pans around the perimeter of the orchard, sing as you go if you have a wassailing song.
(Around the Orchard)
We stamp and sing, on pots and pans we bang,
To scare away rot and ruin we clash and clang.
Be gone foul things from within this wood,
Be gone unless you’re wholesome and good!
Once around the orchard, tap and rap awake the trees in the orchard. At each one aspurge with some of your wassail drink.
(Knocking on the trees with a stick)
I knock and rap, with sticks I tap
Awaken and rise your sugary sap!
When you at last reach the most productive (or most venerable or oldest or favorite) tree in the orchard say these words:
(At the best/oldest tree)
Here’s to thee, our fairest tree,
We raise and shout out our toasts three
Whence thou might bud, and whence thou might, blow,
And whence thou might once again many fruit grow!
Hail to thee, our fairest tree!
Hail, that you be visited by many a bee!
Hail, that you be whole and healthee!
Stand fast, root! Bear well, top!
We pray that you send us a good crop:
Every twig, bear fruit that’s sweet;
Every bough, full of fruit good to eat!
Wæs þu hæl! Good tree, Wassail!
May your heath never falter or fail!
Bushel, bushel, sacks-full!
And our pockets full, too!
Hurra, Hurra, and once more Hurra!
Gather around the tree and join in a song or two, enjoy a cup of wassail but before you go leave behind an offering at that chosen tree that will be there for it and for the orchard. Pour out some wassail for the tree and leave some bread.
A Wassail Recipe
My wife and I are fond of more mulled-cider types of wassail and we use an instant pot to make it so we can be familiar with the apples we are using and choose the variety. The original recipe we were using we have tweaked until this is what we’ve come up with.
You will need:
6-8 apples, quartered (We prefer September Wonder or Autumn Glory but since no variety is universally available you should choose a good flavored, fairly sweet apple with some measure of tartness but not overly tart. You can choose more than one variety but try to not choose more than two or three as the flavors are less defined that way.)
1-2 clementines, halved (This is optional. You can substitute for a single orange if you want but I like clementines far better.)
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon whole cloves
2-5 cinnamon sticks
Enough water to cover the fruit
Put all of the dry ingredients into a strainer basket in the instant pot. (If you don’t have a strainer basket you’ll need to strain it afterwards.)
Pour the water into the instant pot and add the lid. Cook on manual for 15 minutes and let it sit at least 5 minutes afterwards before depressurizing.
Remove the cinnamon sticks as they will just get in the way of the mashing. Mash the rest of the mixture in the strainer to drain the juices out. Unless you used cheesecloth to contain them, the mash that is left over has cloves in it and won’t be particularly pleasant to eat, so it can be either discarded or given back to the trees as another part of the offering. Trust me, they’ll like it just fine as it is also historical to pelt the trees with fruit.
Enjoy the wassail!
[iii] James M. Gibson, editor, Records of Early English Drama: Kent: Diocese of Canterbury (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), lxxxviii.
[iv] Robert Herrick Esq., Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane & Divine, vol. 2. (London: William Pickering, 1846), 74-75. (The original edition was printed in 1648; however, the citations refer to the Pickering edition of 1846.)
[v] Henry David Thoreau, Wild Apples (Published in The Atlantic, November 1862), accessed 12/29/2020 at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4066/4066-h/4066-h.htm