Today I finally got around to wassailing my apple trees. I have been meaning to do this for some time. Traditionally Wassailing takes place on or around 6th January and I did go to a Wassailing event in a local orchard on January 8th but like all good intentions (and due to bad weather) I postponed Wassailing my trees at home. However, I decided that today, being Imbolc (or St. Bridget’s Day) and the beginning of Spring it was a good alternative day to do it.

I also made one or two changes of my own to the tradition. Usually the ceremony involves beating the trees with sticks, making a lot of noise with song and dance and so on. At the event I went to people hung bits of toast on the trees and poured a libation of cider or apple juice around the roots. We were also given a slip of paper with the words to recite whilst beating the trees:

Apple Tree, Apple Tree give us some fruit,
or it's off with your head and up with your root.

I have to confess I wasn't really very happy about the idea of beating and threatening the trees with dire consequences of their failure to comply so I made up my own words to bless, rather than threaten, the trees and ask nicely for their bounty. I did not beat them with sticks but simply offered each tree in turn (3 of them) an apple juice libation with these words:
Wassail, wassail to you Apple Tree
and to the Good Spirit residing in thee.
This libation I offer, take it down to your roots
and I ask that you grant us your bountiful fruit.

The word ‘Wassail’ is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes Hael’ which means ‘good health’ and is the root of our words ‘health/healthy’, so I simply wished my trees good health and, without threats, asked them to provide me with fruit. It remains to be seen if it works!


Waes Hael

Wassail Bowl

Picture courtesy of Google Images

‘Waes Hael’ is an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning ‘good health’. In modern English this has come down to us as ‘Wassail’. Since ancient times groups of people have gone out ‘Wassailing’ on either New Years Eve or Twelfth Night.

By custom wassailing can be divided into two distinct groups. One custom was to go from door to door bringing good wishes to the household and the other custom was to go wassailing in the fields and, especially in the cider producing counties of the West Country, into orchards to bless the trees to ensure a good crop for the coming year.

The wassail itself was originally a drink made from mulled ale, wine or cider blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two. It could contain roasted apples and this gave it the alternative name ‘Lambs Wool’ because the pulp of the apples looked a bit like fleece floating on the drink. Many recipes for wassail, both traditional and more modern, can be found on the internet. The drink was served in a large bowl or goblet made from wood, or sometimes pewter or silver, passed from one person to the next. (Jesus College at Oxford University has a wassail bowl which is covered with silver and can hold 10 gallons!)

At each stop the ‘Wassailers’ would sing special wassail songs or carols and it is from this tradition that we now have carol singers doing the rounds singing Christmas Carols in the days leading up to Christmas. Each area of the country had its own particular wassail carols, several of which have come down to us today. In some areas the tradition only ceased as recently as the 1960’s and this is perhaps why at least two of these songs have become well-known and I learnt them both as a child.

One of these is known as The Gloucestershire Wassail. Here is the first verse:

Wassail, wassail all over the town.
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made of the good maple tree;
with the wassailing bowl we drink unto thee.

There are several different versions to this song but the version I am most familiar with continues with verses wishing good health to various livestock owned by the householder, such as ‘So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek,’ and ‘Here’s health to the ox and to his right eye,’: – you get the gist.

More familiar, and perhaps more suitable for New Years Eve is simply known as The Wassail Song, or ‘Here we come a-wassailing’. For those who are interested the words and music for both of these Wassail Carols are free to download from ChristmasCarolMusic.org. Here you will also find lists of recordings of these songs – including versions from bands such as Blur and Steeleye Span.

Here now is the full version of The Wassail Song as I learnt it, again there are others:

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

We are not daily beggars who beg from door to door,
but we are neighbours’ children whom you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

God bless the master of this house, likewise his mistress too,
and all the little children that around the table go.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

Waes Hael to one and all!

Site content copyright of Elizabeth Leaper (Libby).

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