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Orchard-visiting wassail: a holiday tradition with pagan roots

Most people associate Wassail with Christmas caroling, but as the Wikipedia reminds us, it’s also the ancient, probably pre-Christian tradition of “drinking (and singing) the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive. … Perhaps unbeknown to the general public, this ancient English tradition is still very much thriving today.”

A web search (kindly conducted by rr of Twisted Rib blog) turned up several listings of events from recent years. Real Cider blog shared a select list of Wassail events 2011, ranging from the 6th to the 23rd of January. Several more are listed on the British Christmas Customs and Traditions page for Wassailing (which also includes some useful information about the custom). This list from 2009 is the most comprehensive we’ve seen, though it may be out of date. And the best documented single event on the web appears to be the wassailing at the village of Whimple in east Devon.

Whimple Wassailing was re-started in 1993 under the auspices of Whimple History Society who saw it as their duty to try to revive this industry so vital to the well-being of the area and, of course, the national interest. Our ritual follows the traditional well-tried and tested ceremony of our predecessors with the Mayor in his robes of office and the Princess carrying lightly toasted bread in her delicately trimmed flasket, whilst the Queen, wearing her crown of Ivy, Lichen and Mistletoe, recites the traditional verse.

The original Whimple Incantation
has been retained:-

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!

Her Majesty is then gently but manfully assisted up the tree in order to place the cyder-soaked toast in the branches whilst the assembled throng, accompanied by a group of talented musicians, sing the Wassail Song and dance around the tree. The Mulled Cider or ‘Wassail Cup’ is produced and everyone takes a sample with their ‘Clayen Cup’.

The Guns are fired and a general rumpus is created by the crowd banging their saucepan lids and playing a variety of percussion ‘instruments’ of all shapes and sizes to wake up the tree ready for the next crop.

Sounds like a good time!

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