"Wassail" derives from the Anglo-Saxon "waes haeil"......
Often, agricultural workers and villagers carrying lanterns, a pail filled with cider, shotguns and horns, would walk to their local orchard, which is sometimes lit by bonfires, and gather around the largest or most prolific tree. This tree is known as the Apple Tree Man, and is nominated as the guardian of the orchard. Cider is poured onto its roots, and pieces of soaked toast or cake put in the branches for the robins – guardian spirits of the trees. The wassailers fill their cups with cider and toss it into the branches. Then they refill their cups and sing a toast to the tree, such as:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Whence thou may’st bud and whence thou 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!
To drive away any evil spirits and wake up the sleeping trees, as much noise as possible is made, such as the blowing of cow horns, the banging of metal trays, and shotguns fired into the upper branches.
A wassail bowl or cup, often made from turned ash or maple, is filled with a mixture of hot cider, gin and ginger, and passed around in the orchard. This bowl would sometimes have been taken around from house to house during the Twelve Days of Christmas filled with a mixture of hot ale, spices, sugar and roasted apples.
At the community orchard in Bridport, we normally celebrate Wassail on the second Sunday in January, during the afternoon. The event has become very popular, and regularly attracts 200 – 300 revellers who join us in chasing away the evil spirits from the orchard and welcoming in the good ones to ensure a fruitful year and bountiful harvest.
We invite a local Morris Dancing group called Wyld Morris who start proceedings with their medley of traditional Morris tunes, jolly Wassail songs (with rousing audience participation), followed by some lively dancing to lift hearts and spirits. There is a lovely warm fire, and local cider producers provided a variety of their local ciders to help oil the wheels of revelry, and orchard volunteers serve hot apple juice, made from orchard apples, that is greatly appreciated by all.
The Town Crier in full regalia will announce the start of the Wassail. Then in comes Martin Maudesley, storyteller, folklorist, mummer, musician and master of ceremonies (his true title is Wassail Butler). He often starts with a story “The Apple Tree Man”. In English folk lore The Apple Tree Man is the name given to the spirit of the oldest apple tree in the orchard and in whom the fertility of the whole orchard is thought to reside.
After the story, Martin leads the Wassail ceremony. The King and Queen are crowned and they select a special tree which is given a libation, an offering of cider to its roots, and cider soaked bread in its branches. At this point Martin introduced another folk lore character, the Dorset Ooser - a horned face mask. This is held by a volunteer from the crowd and danced around the tree – another element to frighten away any dark spirits from the orchard. The crowd comes in with a great hullabaloo – drums, whistles, pans and spoons, rattles and all manner of noisemakers are employed to great effect. Finally pieces of bread are handed round so that people can choose a tree to bless, give thanks to it and place bread in the branches for the robins to eat.
So we give thanks for the orchard, the joy it brings us; to all the orchard volunteers who are so generous with their time and skills and dedication; to the Town Council and local businesses who support us so brilliantly.
With very grateful thanks to Sue Clifford and Angela King from Common Ground, and their book “England in Particular” published by Hodder and Stoughton in 2006, from which some of the background described here has been obtained.
More information on Common Ground can be found at : www.commonground.org.uk