I’ve wanted to go wassailing for a while, and this year I finally made it. We sang to the apple trees, fed them bread and cider, chased away the evil spirits, and we are fully expecting a bumper crop of apples in the coming harvest.
Wassailing is an old custom with the aim of driving the evil spirits out of the orchard, keeping the good spirits in, and waking the apple trees from their winter slumber. There is also another kind of wassailing that was the precursor to Christmas caroling which you can read about here.
The first recorded mention of wassailing is from 1585 in Kent, England. It almost died out in modern times but has recently been revived and is gaining in popularity, especially in cider-producing regions like southern England. Traditionally people wassailed the trees on the eve of 12th night, which is either the 5th or 16th of January, but nowadays, wassailing might be held anytime in January.
This year, I was glad to see a wassailing event in London at a National Trust property, Morden Hall Park. When I explained to my husband that we would be singing to trees and chasing away evil spirits, he raised his eyebrows and looked a bit worried. But he’s always up for the odd things I come up with, so he agreed to go. But when Rach, a friend from work, got exciting about going with me, he politely bowed out (with a sigh of relief). So, Rach and I had a great time wassailing the apple trees.
Here are some of the key ingredients needed for a successful wassailing experience:
I believe a wreath for the head is actually optional, but making it was a lot of fun and got us in the wassailing mood. When we arrived, we were given a wreath made of woven twigs. Then we chose assorted greenery to weave through the twigs to decorate it. There were also ribbons that could be added. Everyone had their own style of head wreath. Some were classic and beautiful, and others were wild and beautiful. They actually reminded me of the mythical Green Man (of whom I am very fond).
Sticks or Wands
We were also given short sticks to make our wands. We tied bells to the ends, wrapped them in crepe paper, and added other decorations as desired. Hitting the trees with sticks was a part of the ancient tradition. This was to wake up the tree and get the sap flowing. It might also drive out insects (or evil spirits). At our event, I didn’t see anyone hitting the trees with their sticks. Most of us just gave them a loving, encouraging pat on the trunk.
After decorating our head wreaths and wands, our small group headed out to the trees led by an accordion player and a violinist. As we gathered around the first tree, we were welcomed by a beating drum and the occasional reverberation of a gong. The sounds were meant to connect us to the trees and probably to send stimulating vibrations through the ground and the tree.
Chanting and Singing
As we gathered around each apple tree, we read a chant to encouraging the tree to be healthy and bring forth lots of fruit.
Old apple tree, we wassail thee
And hope that you will bear
Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stair
Traditionally, wassailing is done in an orchard, and one tree – often the oldest – is selected to represent the spirit of the orchard. And it is the one that receives the blessing for the entire orchard.
However, the event we attended was at a National Trust site and apparently the orchard that had once proudly stood there had been replaced by a parking lot. But two of the old trees remained and there were several new ones that had been recently planted. Since there were only a few trees, instead of choosing one, we just wassailed them all.
Toast and cider
After chanting around each tree, we took a slice of bread, dipped it in cider, and laid it at the roots or placed it in the branches. Traditionally, we would have used toast, but, hopefully, a slice of bread accomplished the same thing. The bread is to feed the birds – especially the robins who represent the good spirits – and the cider is probably just to remind the trees of the desired goal – producing lots of apples for cider.
Noise making is an important part of wassailing, as it is meant to drive away the evil spirits from the trees. At some wassailing events a gun is fired, but at ours, we just banged on pots and pans or whatever we had brought with us to make a lot of noise.
After all the trees were blessed, the evil spirits driven away, and the trees had their drink of cider, we also got to have a cup full of hot cider to warm us up.
We had a lot of fun and I am fairly confident that there are no evil spirits remaining in the apple trees at Morden Hall Park.
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