Here we go a Wassailing…..

(Any excuse to drink cider!)

Wassailing at Maplehurst, West Sussex

I remember singing the carol ‘Here we go a Wassailing’ at school without having a clue what it was about. Just in case you don’t know. Wassailing is a folk tradition that entails the ritual blessing of fruit trees in winter to ensure a good harvest in the following autumn.  It usually involves drinking, making loud noises and apple trees – just an average night out for some people, with an apple tree thrown in! If anyone fancies trying it, the good news is, wassailing has seen a recent revival.

What is wassailing

Wassailing is the practice of the community visiting the neighbourhood orchards, selecting a tree, usually the oldest, singing, or chanting a rhyme and making lots of noise while drinking mulled cider or wine. The remains of the cider in the wassail cup are poured onto the tree.

Wassailing come from the old English words ‘waes hael’ meaning ‘good health’, our equivalent of ‘Cheers’. It started as a drinking salute and later became associated with a particular drink and the tradition of wassailing.

Wassailing usually occurs around the Christmas holiday or just after at the beginning of January often on 12th night on the 6th January although it is often celebrated on the old pre-Gregorian 12th night of 17 January. It is probably of pagan origin but was assimilated into Christianity where it became part of the Christmas tradition.

The wassailing drink originally started off as a mulled wine or mead, then evolved into a drink more associated with apples and is made of mulled cider, with sugar or honey, spices finished with roasted crab apples. Sometimes cream and eggs were whisked into it and bits of toast were added as they were thought to improve the flavour. All this is served in a special wassailing cup which is made especially for the ceremony and can be crafted from pottery or more usually pewter or silver. This bowl can hold anything from half a pint to 10 gallons!

Wassailing over the years

Whimple Wassail 1930

Originally wassailing would have been a harvest or fertility festival before developing into a winter festival. Historically wassailing can be traced back to two different traditions – blessing the orchards and celebrating the New Year or 12th night. Records of Wassailing date back as far as 14th century although its exact origins are unknown.  Traditionally it was used as a means of ensuring a good harvest of apples by frightening away evil spirits from the orchard and waking up the sleeping tree. The association with apples slowly disappeared and it became more of a communal celebration – visiting neighbours passing around the wassailing cup and singing songs to wish them good health. There are records of the wassailing song sung in Leeds at the beginning of the 17th century.

In Victorian times it became fashionable to embrace ancient traditions such as wassailing. The Victorians did not approve of all the raucous drinking associated with it so adapted it so that it to suit their sensibilities. Wassailing recipes appeared in cookery books as a sort of trifle to be eaten over the Christmas holidays.

Wassailing today

Wassailing at Chepstow with Mari Lwyd

Wassailing survived the centuries by adapting to the cultural norms of the times. There has always been a continued practice in apple growing areas especially around Somerset, Dorset, and Devon. A renewed interest in rural traditions and reintroducing old native species of apples has seen wassailing increase in popularity. I put an internet search in for ‘Wassailing 2020’ and found that wassailing is going on all over the country and is organised by all sorts of people from the Wildlife Trust, local Transition organisations as well as Pagan and Morris dancing groups.

A couple of years ago I held a small wassail around my little apple tree. It consisted of a few friends, some mulled cider, drums, and pot lids and lots of enthusiasm. If you want to hold your own wassail all you need is a fruit tree, some friends, something to make some noise and mulled cider.

To help you along here is a recipe for mulled cider and some ideas for your own wassailing night.

Wassailing Cider Recipe

In a large saucepan, pour in a litre of cider- still is better than sparkling and the more traditional the better. Add a mixture of spices such as, a couple of cinnamon sticks, half a dozen whole star anise and around a dozen or so cloves, and some sugar or honey to taste. To this you can add brandy, sliced or roasted apples or other fruit.  Slowly heat the liquid to release the flavour of the spices. It is ready for drinking just before it starts to boil.

Pour the mulled cider into your wassailing cup (or just use mugs) and drink. While making your mulled cider toast a couple of slices of bread. Then make your way to the tree.  When you reach the tree make as much noise as you can with whatever is to hand – pan lids are handy. It has been known for people to fire shotguns, but this is not a good idea if you are doing this at home in your garden.  You can also beat the tree to wake it up, while singing or chanting a wassailing rhyme such as the one below.

Pour leftover cider on the tree – if there is any!

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mays’t bud amd whence thou mays’t blow,
And whence thou mays’t bear apples enow.
Hats full, caps full, bushel, bushel, sacks full,
And my pockets full too!

Then put the toast in either a fork in the tree or hang it from a branch, then pour mulled cider onto the bottom of the tree (if there is any left). You have now ensured a good crop of fruit for the next harvest so go and congratulate yourself with some more cider.



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