Wassailing the old English apple tree
A successful wassail ensures a good apple harvest. (Heart of Devon)
Be prepared to dip your toast in cider, parade by candlelight and powder your shotgun -- the ancient southern English tradition of wassailing the apple trees is very much alive.
From Devon to Kent, on the original “Twelfth Night” of the Julian calendar (around 17 January), thousands of people descend on England’s cider orchards in a bid to awaken the apple trees from their winter slumber, scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest.
The word waes-hal -- or wassail -- dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and means “to be in good health”. The celebration is a chance to share a bowl of hot, mulled, spicy cider with locals and to join in the community’s singing, dancing and storytelling.
“It is a strong tradition and a well-loved event,” said Tiffany Nieuwoudt, coordinator of the Stoke Gabriel Wassail in South Devon. “I’m not sure how many here revel in the pagan aspect of it, yet there’s quite a mix of people who come, including children running around with glow sticks.”
Many of the celebration’s rituals still pay homage to fertility and ancient tree worship. Locals sing to the oldest and best apple tree in the village to ensure a good crop. Cider is poured onto the roots, while a volley of gunshots are fired through the branches to ward off wicked ghosts. Then toast soaked in cider is hung in the branches to lure robins – the guardian spirits of the trees.
It’s crucial to be as noisy as possible on wassail night, with musical instruments and hearty song, as candlelit parades in the wintery orchards raise toasts to Pomona the Goddess of apples. Although traditions vary from village to village, many remain faithful to old English traditions with the Wassail King and Queen leading the parade, crowned with wreathes of berries. A central Wassail song headlines many ceremonies and then it's on with the merry making, with morris dancers and mummers plays – both old English folk performances – and a chance to taste local ciders, apple cake and hog roasts.
The Thornbury wassail, near Bristol, goes one step further with river nymphs, a unicorn and mud men parading through the town. Jack Frost and a cider king also make an appearance.
Wassail events are popular in the cider-producing counties of southwest England -- primarily Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire – or southeast England — including Kent, Sussex, Essex and Suffolk.
In Sussex and Kent, the tradition is often known as Howling. Many wassails now happen on the nearest weekend to 17 January, so it’s good to check the date before travelling.