The Story of Wassailing
When did wassailing begin?
Wassailing is an ancient pagan ritual that typically occurs post-winter solstice as days get longer, and while the majority of them take place around the new (or old) Twelfth Night, some happen around the second full moon of the year. There are no rules that wassailing must happen on a specific date.
The term wassail or ‘waes hael’ hails from the Anglo-Saxon period and means be of good health, and the response is ‘drinc hael’, meaning drink and be healthy.
Although synonymous with Christmas, the tradition of wassailing has largely been replaced by carolling. The famous carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ hint at some of the ways British people celebrated Christmas in the past. Advent, a time of fasting, was observed from the 1st to the 24th of December. Christmas would then last twelve days, ending with revels and feasting on the 5th of January – the eve of Epiphany in the Christian calendar – with wassailing a key part of the celebration.
What happens during wassailing?
Both wassailing and carolling share the practice of people going door-to-door and singing, but wassailing also involves offering a drink from the ‘wassail bowl’ in exchange for gifts.
However, there is another interpretation of wassailing with ancient roots: the tradition of visiting orchards in the cider-producing regions of England, mainly the counties of Dorset, Devon, Somerset, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.
Merrymakers commonly visited local orchards and fruit trees, sang songs and created a ruckus, often by clanging pots and pans. In turn, the revellers were rewarded by the orchard’s appreciative owner with some type of warm, spiced alcoholic drink from a communal wassail cup or bowl. Occasionally, a topping of apple (known as ‘lamb’s wool’) would be added.
The purpose was to ward off evil spirits from the orchards and please the spirits of the fruit trees – all to provide an abundance of fruit for the year ahead.
Wassailing in song
There are plenty of wassailing songs in Great Britain. However, two of the songs particularly associated with the tradition in present times are ‘The Wassailer’s Carol’ (‘Here we come a-Wassailing among the leaves so green’) and ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail Song’ (Wassail! Wassail, all over the town, our toast it is white and our ale it is brown’).
Nowadays, both of these songs are still extensively recorded and are considered key elements of traditional folk music of England. In fact, popular 90’s band Blur recorded ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail Song’ as ‘The Wassailing Song’. Perhaps if Liam and Noel Gallagher put aside their differences we can get an Oasis cover of ‘The Wassailer’s Carol’?
Robins bring good spirits
Wassailing is still widely practised by many people across Britain. Indeed, residents of Carhampton in Somerset meet at the community orchard on the 17th January each year as a ritual to ask the gods for a good apple harvest.
Shotguns are fired overhead to scare off evil spirits, and the groups sing the following (last verse):
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
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Make your own wassail punch with our award-winning apple cider
It takes less than 30 minutes to prepare this Victorian-themed wassail punch and just over 30 minutes to cook it. This recipe is a non-alcoholic version that can be enjoyed by younger members of your family or for those who don’t drink.
For an even fruitier wassail punch, can replace the apple juice with our premium and ethically sourced ‘Fruity One‘ box of tea.
- 6 small apples
- 1 litre of our award-winning Hampshire apple juice with ginger
- 2 cinnamon sticks crushed
- 2 pinches of ground cloves
- Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
- 1 sliced lemon
- Preheat oven to 190 degrees C.
- Wash and core the apples. Score each apple round its middle, using a sharp knife.
- Place the apples on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 45 minutes, or until the apples have softened and their skins are beginning to split.
- Warm the apple juice (cider or beer) in a pan on a low heat, add the spices and stir well.
- Heat until the surface of the liquid begins to foam.
- Add the sliced lemon and apples before serving.