In this most curtailed of Christmas times we found a new way to make merry for a permitted day of family reunion….or rather, we rediscovered an old one. The Anglo Saxon term ‘wassail’ means ‘good health’ and in the cider producing areas of England at midwinter the country people would assemble to visit their dormant orchards to ritually see off bad spirits and invite in good ones. A frost and fire, essentially pagan community knees up, featuring libations of mulled cider, beer or punch and alcohol soaked bread, (literally, offering a toast) to the trees in hope of a bumper crop in the coming year.
Our welcome visitors this precious day were family out from the city, an hours drive away. A great time to reintroduce some traditional festive fun with a (socially distanced) outdoor homage to the oldest tree in our young orchard – a slightly off beam Arthur Turner – the same age as the youngest grandchild, at 7 years. She and older brother, 10, loved the idea of bashing pots and ringing a bell, with licence to shout and scream to their hearts and throats capacity! Before that cacophonous climax I read an old wassailing verse, recorded as being sung by farmers and their labourers in Devon in the 1790’s
Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayest bud, and whence thou mayest blow
And when thou mayst bear apples enow
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too!
And then we all sang the first verse of one of the most popular of the old wassailing songs, with its chorus.
Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green
Here we come a-wassailing so fair to be seen
Love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too
And God bless you and send you a happy new year
And God send you a happy new year.
I was tempted to do what the chaps of old would have done and let off a round or two skywards through the branches, but somehow an air rifle soft ‘phut’ would never match a shotgun’s sharp blast! There are two wassailing traditions – the domestic and the horticultural. The former reflected the ancient tradition of rich households playing host to their humble tenants and dependents in the bleak midwinter, centred on the feast of christmas or new year’s eve, where begging was replaced by exchange of services – sing us a song and you’ll be rewarded with meat and drink. The song’s second verse catches that provision nicely:
We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door
but we are friendly neighbours who you have seen before
Today (2020 excepted) the domestic tradition has been largely overtaken and tamed by door to door carolling. In contrast the parallel ritual played out in orchards has enjoyed a healthy revival as more people immerse themselves in celebratory communal customs born of manual work practices and craft skills. Peak wassailing seems to take place mainly between Advent (Twelfth Night) up to mid month.
As for our impromptu rural homage, we found it one of the highlights of the holiday, Nicely apt for time and place; providing some family fun, a chance to revive jaded spirits and look forward to a time of fruitful renewal, in all senses of the term.