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Wassailing

Fruit, community, and ancient ritual 

Gillian Hough, presents a first guide to the origins, celebration, and practicalities of Wassailing. An ancient pagan ritual conducted in deep mid-winter, to bless apple trees for a bountiful harvest for the next season, wassailing presents a unique and portable celebration, an opportunity to foster community and acknowledge the vast wealth we receive from the earth.

Gillian Hough 

Gillian Hough, CAMRA’s Real Ale, Cider and Perry Campaigns Director and National Director. Gill seeks to champion cider, perry, beer, pubs and clubs.

 

Wassailing

Fruit, community, and ancient ritual 

Gillian Hough, presents a first guide to the origins, celebration, and practicalities of Wassailing. An ancient pagan ritual conducted in deep mid-winter, to bless apple trees for a bountiful harvest for the next season, wassailing presents a unique and portable celebration, an opportunity to foster community and acknowledge the vast wealth we receive from the earth. Skip to content.

Gillian Hough 

Gillian is a CAMRA National Director & Real Ale, Cider & Perry Campaigns Director. championing beer, cider, pubs, clubs.

Living tradition

Wassailing: an ancient Pagan ritual conducted in deep mid-winter, to bless Apples trees for a bountiful harvest for the next season.
The last time I wrote an article about Wassailing was in 2000 for CAMRA’s Good Cider Guide which was then edited by Dave Matthews. To research the article, I visited the library of the English Folk Song and Dance Society at Cecil Sharp House in Primrose Hill and spent days reading esoteric books. I’m delighted that this article still reads like a, slightly confused, covert eco-conservation text urging others to get involved.

Since then, in 2013 Colin and Karen Cater, of Hedingham Fair, published arguably the most profound book called Wassailing – reawakening an ancient folk custom gathering food and drink recipes, song lyrics and music from around the country. The Cater’s look at Wassailing from both a historical perspective and the scope modern Wassails in community orchards have to unite generations of people.

Living tradition

Wassailing: an ancient Pagan ritual conducted in deep mid-winter, to bless Apples trees for a bountiful harvest for the next season.
The last time I wrote an article about Wassailing was in 2000 for CAMRA’s Good Cider Guide which was then edited by Dave Matthews. To research the article, I visited the library of the English Folk Song and Dance Society at Cecil Sharp House in Primrose Hill and spent days reading esoteric books. I’m delighted that this article still reads like a, slightly confused, covert eco-conservation text urging others to get involved.

Since then, in 2013 Colin and Karen Cater, of Hedingham Fair, published arguably the most profound book called Wassailing – reawakening an ancient folk custom gathering food and drink recipes, song lyrics and music from around the country. The Cater’s look at Wassailing from both a historical perspective and the scope modern Wassails in community orchards have to unite generations of people.

“Wassailing: an ancient Pagan ritual conducted in deep mid-winter, to bless Apples trees for a bountiful harvest for the next season. .”

 

— Gillian Hough

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Folklore and festivities 

In the 19th century the word folklore was invented to describe how scholars would go around farms collecting the previously oral folk tales, remedies, songs, and customs taught by those who went before. If it were not for this folklore collecting wassailing, something mentioned in the epic 11th-century poem Beowulf, could have been forgotten.

The term waes hael or wassail is derived from Anglo-Saxon and means be of good health and the response is drinc hael meaning drink and be healthy.

Wassails generally happen post-winter solstice as days get longer and while most happen around new (or old) Twelfth Night, some take place around the second full moon of the year. There are no rules that Wassailing must happen on a specific date – so talk with people and settle on a date which suits your community. In the southern hemisphere, wassails take place in July which is their midwinter.

Folklore and festivities 

In the 19th century the word folklore was invented to describe how scholars would go around farms collecting the previously oral folk tales, remedies, songs, and customs taught by those who went before. If it were not for this folklore collecting wassailing, something mentioned in the epic 11th-century poem Beowulf, could have been forgotten.

The term waes hael or wassail is derived from Anglo-Saxon and means be of good health and the response is drinc hael meaning drink and be healthy.

Wassails generally happen post-winter solstice as days get longer and while most happen around new (or old) Twelfth Night, some take place around the second full moon of the year. There are no rules that Wassailing must happen on a specific date – so talk with people and settle on a date which suits your community. In the southern hemisphere, wassails take place in July which is their midwinter.

“If it were not for this folklore collecting wassailing, something mentioned in the epic 11th-century poem Beowulf, could have been forgotten..”

 

— Gillian Hough

Where, when, and why?

Generally, they happen in a private or community orchard – which is technically formed by five trees. Urban wassails can be centred on a marketplace, single tree, or allotment site so don’t be tied to convention!

Why bother? The story goes by singing to the trees, by dancing on the land, by lighting fires and making lots of noise the trees awaken from their winter slumber and the sap slowly begins to rise.

Wassailing is a palpable wish that trade, crops and wildlife flourish the following year – and facts seem to support this. Some farmers who have restarted Wassailing have said they will not stop as their yields have increased and yet nothing else they do has altered.

Today across the UK Wassails vary – in Wales twelve fires are lit (representing the months of the year) around the orchard, and in some areas shotguns were discharged above the trees to help reawaken them. Urban wassails are also taking on their own form.

So how do you plan a wassail?

1) Work out where your audience are. Is it a local word of mouth event, or are you producing flyers and encouraging people to travel from further afield?

2) Encouraging participation: Through necessity, and choice, traditions evolve over time. Wassailing offers an increasingly rare opportunity to come together over something that unifies everyone in a community, nature. We all benefit from it, through cider, beer, and beyond.

Please note: It’s important to acknowledge that, in the past, black face make-up has been part of various folk-dance and ritual traditions including Morris and Wassailing. As an organisation committed to diversity and inclusivity, we agree with the majority of participants that this part of the tradition should be left behind. CAMRA welcomes that those involved have seen the need for change, and recommend that this move towards greater inclusivity continue. Our view is that we must move forward to make everyone feel safe and welcome at all events now and in the future.

3) More people bring more considerations: is there adequate transport, parking and toilets, site access and footpaths?

4) Consider what time of day your wassail will take place: Normally they are in the evening but increasingly some are held in daylight for ease of access and to involve more attendees. 

So how do you plan a wassail?

1) Work out where your audience are. Is it a local word of mouth event, or are you producing flyers and encouraging people to travel from further afield?

2) Encouraging participation: Through necessity, and choice, traditions evolve over time. Wassailing offers an increasingly rare opportunity to come together over something that unifies all people, nature. We all benefit from it, through cider, beer, and beyond. It’s important to acknowledge that, in the past, black face make-up has been part of various folk-dance and ritual traditions including Morris and Wassailing. As an organisation committed to diversity and inclusivity, we agree with the majority of participants that this part of the tradition should be left behind. CAMRA welcomes that those involved have seen the need for change, and recommend that this move towards greater inclusivity continue. Our view is that we must move forward to make everyone feel safe and welcome at all events now and in the future.

3) More people bring more considerations: is there adequate transport, parking and toilets, site access and footpaths?

4) Consider what time of day your wassail will take place: Normally they are in the evening but increasingly some are held in daylight for ease of access and to involve more attendees. 

5) Ensure people come equipped with: torches, warm clothes, wellies and suitable footwear for what could be difficulty walking and possibly impossible wheelchair or pushchair conditions.

6) Ask other people to help and plan with you. Establish a core group early on. You’ll need a master of ceremonies, possibly a king or queen of the Orchard, some people to make music and carry the wassail cup/bowl.

7) You will need some salt, bread and cider (possibly warmed) and items to make noise with (saucepans and wooden spoons).

8) Soak the bread in the cider and hang it on the largest tree as an offering to the robins. The salt is rubbed into a V-shaped bough to protect the anticipated fruit from grubs and pests. Pour some cider on the roots of the tree. Leftover party poppers are good fun too.

9) Prearrange a community space: a barn, village hall or local pub for people to gather post wassail so you can give thanks for the community coming together.

After the festivities in December, wassailing is a great event to bring people together outside with mirth and a bit of mischievous fun.

5) Ensure people come equipped with: torches, warm clothes, wellies and suitable footwear for what could be difficulty walking and possibly impossible wheelchair or pushchair conditions.

6) Ask other people to help and plan with you. Establish a core group early on. You’ll need a master of ceremonies, possibly a king or queen of the Orchard, some people to make music and carry the wassail cup/bowl.

7) You will need some salt, bread and cider (possibly warmed) and items to make noise with (saucepans and wooden spoons). 

8) Soak the bread in the cider and hang it on the largest tree as an offering to the robins. The salt is rubbed into a V-shaped bough to protect the anticipated fruit from grubs and pests. Pour some cider on the roots of the tree. Leftover party poppers are good fun too.

9) Prearrange a community space: a barn, village hall or local pub for people to gather post wassail so you can give thanks for the community coming together.

After the festivities in December, wassailing is a great event to bring people together outside with mirth and a bit of mischievous fun.

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