Toasting a tree’s good health and banging saucepan lids to ward away evil spirits might sound peculiar, but this is the ancient custom of wassailing, and has been practiced for centuries, the tradition pre-dating Christianity. The word “vas heil” is believed to originate from the Norse language, and was translated into the Old English “waes hael“ meaning “good health.”
The custom is mainly celebrated in the cider counties of South East and South West England; Kent, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire to ensure a good harvest the following year. It takes place each year after dark on Old Twelfth Night, which falls on the 17th January.
Traditionally the whole village would take part and would gather with fire lit torches, walking to one or many orchards with pitchers of cider, blowing horns and banging saucepan lids noisily to warn away evil spirits. The custom varies from village to village but usually a song is performed, such as this example from ‘England In Particular’ by Sue Clifford and Angela King:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Whence thou may’st bud and whence though may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow.
Hats full, Caps full, Bushel, Bushel, Bushel Sacks full,
And my pockets full too!
Once in the orchard as much noise as possible is made to wake the trees from their winter slumber, the custom is traditionally a raucous event. A king or queen leads the wassail, choosing the orchard’s most bountiful tree and placing in the forked trunk some bread soaked in cider, a gift to the robin who is believed to be the guardian of the orchard. Cider, mulled with sugar and cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg spices, is poured over the tree’s roots to encourage growth as well as drunk by the revelers, often in specially crafted wassail cups or bowls. In Gloucestershire it was traditional to drink ‘Lamb’s Wool’ a mixture of hot ale, sugar, roasted apples with cream or eggs floating in it!
“Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie's burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again.”
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee
Nowadays wassailing is making a comeback with local community groups and cider producers reviving this ancient custom. In my local village the Painswick Community Orchard Group, in Gloucestershire, held their first wassail in 2012 with many curious villagers joining in:
“We founded the group after finding a map of the village dating back to the 1800’s” said Iris McCormick, owner of the local Bed & Breakfast, “It showed how almost every other field was an orchard and we were shocked to realise how few, if any, were still there today. It was important to us to bring this wonderful tradition back so that future generations can enjoy it and value our orchard heritage.”
Gloucestershire folklore says that the ‘Gloucester Old Spot’ breed of pig, has black spots on its back from the falling fruit in the orchards where it lived.
According to a recent Mintel Oxygen Report (February 2012) cider has seen a 67% increase in sales between 2006 and 2011. This has resulted in growth for local cider producers and seen an increase in small-scale artisan cider producers entering the market. The economic conditions are challenging, however, and last year the country suffered the worst harvest for 15 years, with many trees failing to fruit.