Come a-wassailing this winter – in a West Country orchard
Here in these ‘ere parts of the West Country, we think cider is gert lush – and we’ll go to great lengths to make sure there’s a bumper crop of apples so there’s no shortage of our favourite tipple!
Noisy orchard-wassailing revelry
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself here early in the new year, and your ear drums are up to the challenge, you could join in some noisy orchard-wassailing revelry.
This wonderfully weird, age-old good luck custom involves blessing our beloved apple trees in the hope this will help secure a healthy apple harvest – and a plentiful supply of cider.
It’s an ancient tradition that appears to be growing in popularity over recent years – and, since it usually ends up as a fairly lively and raucous affair, it can offer just the antidote we need to brighten a cold, damp January evening.
Singing to the trees, and generally making a racket
If you still need any further persuading that it’s a good idea to spend a chilly winter’s evening in a West Country orchard, be assured that you’ll also often find there’s some hearty West Country grub being served up to help you soak up all the cider.
The word “wassail” is said to derive from a Saxon expression, ‘Waes hael’, meaning good health. Traditionally, the apple orchard custom involved reciting incantations, singing to the trees, and generally making a racket – sometimes even firing shotguns into the bare wintry branches – all in a bid to frighten away evil spirits that might get in the way of a bountiful harvest.
The “Apple Tree Man”
Ceremonies vary from one place to the next, but they usually share a few important elements. A wassail King and Queen are crowned to lead the songs and ceremonies, for example, and the procession usually moves towards the largest, finest or oldest tree in the orchard, which is chosen to represent all the other trees.
The “Apple Tree Man” is regarded as the spirit of this tree, and to appease him the Queen places a cider-soaked piece of toast up in the bough of the tree, and pours more cider around its base. The crowd then recite an incantation:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
According to legend
Traditional wassailing songs end with a loud “Hurrah!”, and the whole event is a noisy affair, with loud gunshots and pot- and bucket-banging, just to make completely sure the spirits have got the message loud and clear.
According to legend, this is not only to scare off any evil ones who might ruin the coming harvest, but also to awaken the sleeping trees so that they bring a good supply of apples.
Meanwhile, present-day revellers enjoy the spectacle whilst tucking into traditional West Country food such as apple cake, washed down with a tankard or three of warming mulled cider – and the fun continues later into the evening with folk music, more cider, and plenty of laughter!
The majority of wassailing events take place after Christmas, in January and February, with a peak in activity between 10-18th January.