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.