Wassailing the Orchard: A New Year’s Tradition

Todd H. C. Fischer
Apple orchard wassail.

[This article appears in the February/March issue of The SCOOP.]

I stand in the dark, under bare branches, while around me stand figures, cups in one hand, axes in the other. Voices are lifted in song, our billowing breath blowing through the orchard like Yuletide phantoms.

Haunting, no? This year I was a participant in the ancient rite of the apple wassail, held in the orchard of friends who live in Gananoque.

The word wassail comes from waes hael, meaning “good health” in Anglo-Saxon. The act of wassailing was a wish of prosperity and fertility. The proper response to being wished wassail is drinc-hael (“drink well”). People would wassail their neighbours, beehives, cows, and apple trees.

Wassailing was observed in England since at least 1555, with apple wassailing attested by at least 1585 (in Fordwich, Kent). These are the oldest recorded dates so far found, but the act harkens back to traditions practised centuries earlier (at least as far back as 600). Certainly, the apple held deep significance to the ancient Celts who saw it as a symbol of magic.

During the medieval period, wassailing was done on any of the twelve days of Christmas, but it usually occurred on the Kalends of January (January 1) or 12th Night (January 5 or 6). (Our modern date of January 17 is also still observed as a day for wassailing, as it marks when 12th Night fell on the old Julian calendar adopted in 1582.)

To wassail, one carried a drink (such as apple cider, hot spiced ale, or punch) in bowls that were often decorated with ribbons. These bowls were usually made of wood (ash and maple being popular choices), but some were made of metal (such as silver). When wassailing a neighbour, wassailers might expect their hosts to refill their bowl.

There were professional wassailers who would travel about with a wooden bowl (often made of ash) filled with hot ale, apples, spices, and sometimes cream or beaten eggs. (The addition of the latter two ingredients created a foamy layer that led to the wassail brew also being known as “lamb’s wool.” These wassailers collected alms (donations for the poor) in exchange for their services.

The traditions associated with wassailing varied from place to place and from time to time. With apple wassailing, certain elements always are present. Trees would be threatened or beaten, and in later years had (unloaded) firearms shot into their branches. This was done as a symbolic whipping to awaken the trees’ power of fertility and to scare away evil forces. Cider was then poured on the roots and sometimes songs would be sung to the trees. For instance, the following is a wassail song from Buckinghamshire:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou may’st bud and
whence thou may’st blow.
And whence thou may’st
bear apples enow.

Hats full, Caps full, Bushel,
bushel sacks full,
And my pockets full too!

In Somerset, England, one tree was chosen to be “The Apple Tree Man” and it was this specific tree that was wassailed. This happened at noon. As well as pouring cider on the roots, cider-soaked bread or cake would be hung from high branches, while the tips of lower branches would be dipped in cider. Sometimes when making their ruckus, participants might strike or split the bark of the tree to release evil spirits. As well as singing to the tree, they would call “Huzzah!”

In Devon and Cornwall, among other places, all the men of the party would bow three times to the oldest tree, an act said to encourage a large crop. In other places, a small boy would sit in the tree-top, representing a bird, and be fed cake and cheese.

In the West Country, if it was oxen being wassailed, the wassailers would go into the stalls and drink from the wassail bowl. They would then take a cake from a basket decorated with greenery and place the cake on an ox’s horn. If the ox remained quiet, it was thought to be good luck. In Hereford, they also stuck cake on an ox’s horn, the task falling to the oldest person present who would chant:

Here’s to thy pretty face, and to thy white horn,
God send they master a good crop of corn,
Both wheat, rye and barley, of grains of all sort,
And next year if we live we’ll drink to thee again.

At some point, wassailing incorporated the art of Morris dancing, an English folk dance incorporating bells, ribboned shirts, and costumes.

Wassailing found itself abandoned during the 1640s and 1650s in England when Christmas celebrations (considered by the Church to be too rowdy) were quashed. Puritan leaders in America likewise tried to curtail the Old World’s winter celebrations. In both cases, these attempts failed, and versions of wassailing survived. It is uncertain when wassailing came to Canada, but it is interesting to note that Canadian wassailers will also wassail maple trees (hoping they will produce much syrup). Today, wassailers in Canada, the USA, the UK, and Australia still congregate on winter days and nights, to wish each other well, and to reach back into the past and carry on a tradition that our ancestors engaged in for generations.

To all of you, I wish you waes hael!