(Originally Published at Samhain 1996)
On the bitter cold and frost of a January night, with the stars sparkling overhead in a clear sky, small groups of people, muffled against the chill, process down darkened paths into orchards or to lone apple and pear trees. Some may process in silence, others with as much noise as they can muster. Some may carry torches or burning brands, others drums and shotguns or pots and pans. In each case, one of their number will be carrying a ceramic vessel filled with a steaming brew of beer or cider, carefully trying not to spill it, the steam from the bowl mingling with the cloudy breath of the participants ......
This is the popular image of the traditional folk custom of wassailing fruit trees - a ceremony intended to begin the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and the first fertility festival of the folk calendar.
The word wassail derives from the Old English words wæs (þu) hæl which means variously 'be healthy' or 'be whole' - both of which meanings survive in the modern English phrase 'hale and hearty'. Thus this is a traditional ceremony which seeks to start off the first stirrings of life in the land and to help it emerge from winter and to ensure that the next season's crop of fruit, especially apples and pears, will be bountiful.
The most common date for this custom to take place is the eve of Twelfth Night or Old Christmas Eve, ie 5th January, just at the end of the midwinter period when the Wild Hunt rides and chaos traditionally rules as the otherworldly horde broke through into human realms. In some cases, however, the ceremony takes places a little later, on 17th January, depending on whether the celebrants prefer to follow the old or new calendar. Either way, we might see this first fertility ceremony of the year as marking a return to human "normality" after the dark and dangerous days of midwinter. Either way, the date on which wassailing takes place is at least a couple of weeks before Imbolc, the festival which for modern pagans is generally as being the first fertility festival of the year.
For reasons of tradition, orchard wassailing is concentrated in those parts of England where the growing of hard (orchard) fruit is concentrated ie in Somerset and Devon; in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, in Shropshire and Gloucestershire and, to a lesser extent, in Kent. The custom appears to be less ingrained in local practice in Kent, which is known as the Garden of England, where most fruits were grown for the table. In the other areas mentioned, especially in Herefordshire and Somerset, alongside the various varieties of eating apples, the crop is traditionally of special varieties of apple which are too high in acidity for eating and which are therefore particularly suitable for cider (or even scrumpy) making and of similar varieties of pear which are used to produce perry. Thus wassailing is most prevalent in Herefordshire where it is concentrated in the ancient cider and perry orchards.
Many families who practice wassailing their trees keep a special wassailing bowl, which may be of some sort of ceramic (for example earthenware or porcelain) or turned from wood, though one or two silver ones have survived in richer farming families. Whatever the material, the wassailing bowl is often not unlike a punchbowl in having handles either side for ease of carrying and is very rarely used for any other function.
The wassailing ceremony frequently begins just before dark when the wassailing cup (or drink) is prepared. Many recipes survive for this but in the south Cotswolds a drink called Lamb's Wool, made of hot ale, eggs, spices, sugar, cream and roasted apples, was traditional. In other places plain cider was used and in yet others it was hot spiced ale. Despite the fact that wassailing is strongest in cider and perry areas, the beer or ale-based recipes are generally considered to be older and more traditional than those based on cider.
After dark those taking part process down to the orchard, ceremonially bearing the wassail bowl filled with the prepared booze. They also carry large sticks and such items as shotguns, drums, kettles, pans and whistles - anything which can be used to create lots of noise in fact.
The ceremony generally begins with the tree, usually the oldest and most venerable tree in an orchard, being variously serenaded with traditional "wake up" type of chants and rhymes alternating with speeches by the group's leader in praise of the tree, its fruitfulness in previous years and exhorting it to do even better in the coming year. The following one was recorded near Painswick in Gloucestershire (1):
In Devon, meanwhile, each participant took a cupful of the brew and stood under the tree and regaled it with the following:
while in 1791 The Gentleman's Magazine recorded the following rhyme as being in use in south Devon (2):
and in Sussex, where wassailing was sometimes called "howling", the following was used (3).
The custom usually continues with the tree or trees being beaten about the trunk (and any branches within reach) with the sticks. This is believed to begin the process of awakening the tree and starting the sap flowing up the trunk. It is accompanied by much shouting and the making of as much noise as possible, and shotguns are commonly fired up into the branches. Again, this is believed to assist the tree in awakening from its winter sleep as well as frightening away any evil spirits which might be lurking in the branches.
In Sussex, it was not uncommon for all present to bow to the trees, and sometimes a small boy was lifted into the branches where he would receive offerings of bread, cheese and cider (the mainstay of ordinary folks' diet and therefore the foodstuffs which would have been of most immediate concern to them), possibly representing the spirit of the tree receiving the gifts (3).
Finally pieces of toasted bread soaked in the prepared drink are thrust up into forks in the branches or hollows in the tree and left there as offerings, whether to the tree or to the robins. The remainder of the drink is generally sloshed around and over the trunk of the tree, though in some places part of it may also be ceremonially drunk by the participants.
At Brinsop in Herefordshire, according to Mrs Leather (4), there was an allied custom still alive at the time she was writing, in which men would stand in a circle by the fire, chanting three times the words "Auld Ci-der". On each of the three syllables they would bow into the circle, making nine bows in all. The first two notes were sung at a normal pitch but the last, the "-der", dropped to a low growl a full octave below the other notes. The effect, according to Mrs Leather, was a "weird, dirge-like effect" which one might expect to be profoundly hypnotic if repeated continuously for any period of time and more than likely a damned good invocation of the spirit of cider and the apple tree!
Also in Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, a round plum cake with a hole in the middle was stuck onto one of the horns of the largest or best of the bulls which was then prodded and tickled to make him toss his head and throw the cake. If it was thrown forwards, this was believed to be a good omen for the coming harvest, but if it fell backwards a poor harvest was forecast (5).
A number of other folk customs have been recorded at the New Year period in Herefordshire and surrounding counties, including that of carrying a weaving a globe or hawthorn twigs which is then set alight and carried around the fields where crops have yet to be planted or where the seeds lie awaiting the warmer weather. Janet and Colin Bord (1) record a ceremony of this sort, called Burning the Bush, at Brinsop in Herefordshire and suggest that the carrying aloft of a burning branch or bush may symbolise the returning sun and lengthening days. Mrs Leather also records that this custom had been very widespread on farms and in villages in Herefordshire and Radnorshire (just over the border into Wales) during the 19th century and that it was still carried out in a few places at the beginning of this century.
In parts of Worcestershire, on New Year's morning, a crown was made of blackthorn which was then baked in the oven before being burned to ashes in a cornfield, the ashes then being scattered over the ground. Sometimes simple libations of cider or beer were made to crops or pieces of cake buried as offerings.
From Somerset comes a most powerful rhyme for calling blessings down on beasts and crops:
It would be difficult to find a few lines of poetry more suitable for adoption to pagan use!
In Normandy on the Eve of Epiphany or Old Christmas Eve (ie 5th January) lighted torches or brands were thrown at the trunks of fruit trees and small bonfires of straw lit under their branches. It was apparently considered vital that the fires were lit by a child below the age of 12 (in other words usually below the age of puberty) which at first glance seems somewhat puzzling in connection with a fertility ritual. However Dr Miranda Green in her Celtic Goddesses , in discussing the importance of the virginity of both Goewin and Arianrhod in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, suggests that paradoxically a virgin was considered the most fertile and potent of women precisely because her fertility had not been dissipated by intercourse (7).
T F Thiselton Dyer (8) mentions a parallel custom to wassailing prevalent in the 19th century in Bohemia, though admittedly it took place at Easter. After dark on Good Friday, the trees were visited and exhorted to "Bud, O trees, bud! Or I will flog you" and the following day it was the practice of farmers to "shake the trees and clank their keys, while the church bells are ringing, under the impression that the more noise they make the more fruit they will get." There was also clearly a time when wassailing was not confined to country people, for there are accounts that it a form of wassailing was carried out at court in the reign of Henry VII (1485 - 1507) when it was recorded in the Collection of Ordinances of the Royal Household.
Frazer records that similar customs were widespread in various parts of Europe and were generally aimed at banishing evil spirits, though in many cases the "evil" was perceived to be witches (9). In Bohemia on New Year's Eve, for instance, youths would gather in a circle and fire guns three times into the air - a custom called "shooting the witches", while on the shores of Lake Lucerne, in Switzerland, groups of boys would process on Twelfth Night (the last of the intercalary days of Midwinter) carrying flaming torches and creating as much noise as possible in order to frighten away hostile wood spirits. In Silesia, now Poland, it was the custom on both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve for people to fire shots into bushes and trees and over meadows to drive out evil spirits and witches, and to wrap the trunks of fruit trees in straw to protect them from harm.
Needless to say, it seems likely that the references to witches in these and other European customs are down to Christian influence and propaganda; however if they have any roots older than a few hundred years (ie before the time of the various witch persecutions) we might see them as identifying "witches" with the otherworldly hordes believed to break out into human realms during the Twelve Days of Yule or Christmas and therefore as a form of magic intended to ensure that at the end of that period all denizens of the otherworld returned whence they came.
A most interesting addition to the basic wassailing formula was recorded in the late 18th century in Devon3 where the men, returning from the orchard to the house, found the doors barred by the women who denied them entry until one of their number could correctly guess what was impaled on a spit. Invariably this was some titbit or sweetmeat which was given to the man who guessed correctly.
This is a fine example of a riddling or challenge session undertaken to win the right to cross a threshold, where the door threshold may be seen as representing the boundary between this world and the Otherworld and where the women are playing the role of the Guardian whose permission to cross must be sought and won. The whole question of esoteric riddling within traditional ballads and folk custom has been well examined by R J (Bob) Stewart in his book The Underworld Initiation and the book is well worth the reading.
The concepts of boundaries and thresholds ("liminality") has been the subject of considerable study in recent years, both in the folklore and earth mysteries fields. It has, however, generally been overlooked by pagans and magickal folks except in the context of the edge of the circle, being a place where worlds meet (hence the phrase "between the worlds") and of Samhain itself as a boundary between the old andnew years or between past and future. This "liminality" of Samhain is of course widely employed for divination and work involving connection with the ancestors and other dead, or with the beings of the otherworld. As well as Bob Stewart's book mentioned above, a recent writer in this field has been Nigel Jackson who has published several books around this subject. See also Liam Rogers' article The Enchanted Crossroads in WD 12 (Lughnasa 1996) for a discussion of crossroads as boundary places in the landscape.
There appear to have been other British customs involving the wassail bowl. The most widespread involved a bowl of hot spiced ale or cider being carried around from door to door in a community by a group of young people. In some cases householders who were visited were expected to give a little money to the wassailers who either then gave the donor a drink from the bowl or drank to the health of the donor and his family and household. In other cases, the wassailers engaged in a series of challenges or riddles with the householder and sought to gain entry to the house by wit or persuasion. If they succeeded then they were given food and money, though the accounts I found of this version did not make clear whether the householder's health was drunk or not.
An example of such a series of persuading verses was recorded by a Mr Rann of Dudley in 1819 and was published in The Every-Day Book as "The Carroll for a Wassell Bowl", which was said to be popular in Staffordshire and Warwickshire at the time (10):
If this rhyme is to be read at face value (and assuming that it was accurately recorded) it seems clear that this was a custom which was undertaken by groups of young women going from door to door - an act which is unlikely to have been socially acceptable under other circumstances and may provide some evidence for a reversal of social roles, or temporary overturning of social values and behaviour, at this time of year.
Another social wassail rhyme which has been recorded over quite a wide area is:
Of other customs recorded by various writers at various times, one involved placing a ring in the filled bowl, with young unmarried people "dunking" for the ring; the one who succeeded in retrieving it without the use of his or her hands was guaranteed to be married within the year - a transformed fertility custom, perhaps?
Clearly wassailing, in both its fertility and social forms, is a ceremony which could easily be adapted to modern pagan practice, regardless of just how old or "pagan" it actually is, especially for those who are fortunate enough to have a suitable tree in their gardens or otherwise have access to one (for example in woodland) However, in order to retain the spirit of the custom and therefore to retain its meaning and significance, I suggest that one or two points should be borne in mind.
Needless to say, any attempt to fire shotguns in the suburbs is guaranteed to cause an invocation other than that intended!
The carrying of a burning brand or torch around the boundaries of your garden or other little bit of earth while calling up on the spirits of the land is also feasible - unless of course you live in an flat; carrying a candle round the bathroom somehow lacks the spirit of the original!