The Revival of the Wassail

The ancient English tradition of wassailing has had somewhat a revival of recent and regained popularity. Pulling on your wellies, heading out into the frosty night and singing to apple trees to encourage a bountiful harvest whilst sipping cider has become an annual tradition for lots of country dwellers and January revellers. 

In orchards, allotments, farms and gardens across the country, wassail celebrations will be spreading positive joy ahead of spring. On the chosen day, groups with perhaps painted faces and fancy dress attire gather for a procession down to the fruit trees. Often, a wassail King or Queen will guide the merrymakers by a flaming torch to the oldest tree in the orchard, garden or allotment. Once gathered round, a piece of cider-soaked toast is placed onto the tree (or shot out of the tree with a shotgun a la The Ethicurean) to entice the good spirits to come, thus ensuring a good harvest of apples in the coming season. Then, cider is poured around the roots of the trees in honour of the spirits as pots and pans are clattered to ward off the evil spirits that might be lurking in the branches before serenading the tree. Legend has it that there’s fire involved as it represents the returning sun, so sitting around a bonfire or being led by a fire torch to wake up the sleepy winter soul and inject some magic into the evening is to be expected. The term ‘wassailing’ derives from a much-debated translation of the Old Norse ‘ves heill,’ which ultimately translates to 'be healthy’, ‘be you hale.’ 

Drinking plenty of cider is another way to liven things up.  The ritual centres around a wassail cup, which was traditionally filled with local ale or cider blended with spices and honey and drunk to drown animosity in small communities.  

Traditionally, a wassail takes place on the old twelfth night (17th January), although these days not all wassails are the same and different people hold them on different dates. This tradition dates back to pagan times and apparently has roots in 5th century Kent when the first Saxon Jutes brought a celebratory toast, which was named the wassail. Certainly the practice of wassailing was considered a pagan threat to the Christian church and there was even an edict banning it in 1577. 

However, today, as we start to pay more attention to our environment and crave community in what can be a fast-paced, busy world, the wassail brings us back to nature, the land and our communities to embrace tradition and celebrate in all the midwinter glory. 

 Joele Forrester is a digital journalist living in Bristol, although she always makes time to go back to her Dartmoor roots and enjoy the little things in life. When away from the office, you’ll find her walking in the woods, exploring new places close to home or flicking through independent magazines in coffee shops. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.