Often mentioned, rarely understood, wassailing is a midwinter ritual, primarily performed in England. Apple tree wassailing, such as is practiced at the Whimple Wassail, is a ceremony which involves drinking to and singing the health of the apple trees.
In pre-Norman days, the phrase Wæs (þu) hal! – meaning ‘be (thou) hale’ – was an everyday greeting, and it eventually wore down into the single word wassail. The Saxon and Norse English both shared this phrase, along with the accompanying practice of welcoming a visitor with a cup of ale or mead, which allowed wassail! to develop as an all-purpose toast to good health. Since ‘hal’ is the ancestor of our modern ‘whole’, ‘heal’, and ‘holy’, this toast can be seen as more holistic than wishing simple soundness of body. It is not known whether the wassailing of trees is as ancient as the phrase itself, or whether one practice grew out of the other, but it is in this midwinter ritual that the term has principally endured and remains in use today.
Wassailing is widespread throughout England, and especially in cider-producing regions such as the Westcountry, Kent, and Herefordshire. Its traditional date is Twelfth Night, January 6th, although many prefer ‘Old Twelvey Night’, January 17th, which would have been Twelfth Night but for the loss of eleven days after England’s adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. This is the practice at Whimple in Devon, where the village’s historic festivities (which had ceased during the Second World War) were restarted in 1993. Fortunately for Whimple, the fifty year cessation of wassailing in the village had not dimmed the memories of its oldest residents, and the present practices and songs are a continuation of the age-old.
On the evening of Old Twelfth Night, participants gather at the Fountain Inn in Whimple to meet, practice the songs, and show off their costumes. The Mayor (appointed for the occasion, since Whimple no longer has one) leads proceedings, ably assisted by the Princess and the Wassailing Queen, who lead the wassailers out of the pub to the first orchard.
The Princess carries lightly-toasted bread in a flasket, which the Queen dips in Wassail (spiced cider made from the self-same orchard) and is hoisted aloft so that she can hang it in the branches of the oldest tree, while reciting the traditional verse:
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full,caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Having done so, the participants (who bring a variety of homespun percussion instruments and noisemakers) sing the Whimple Wassail Song and dance around the tree, before toasting it with Cider from the communal Wassail Cup. The ceremony concludes with shots being fired through the branches and the villagers making as much noise as possible; shouting and screaming and banging their instruments. The soaked toast is seen as reminding the tree of last year’s goodness, while the noisemaking is used to ‘re-wake’ the trees for the new year, as well as being a variation on old cleansing rituals whereby evil spirits were chased from the vicinity.
Three separate orchards require three ceremonies, interspersed with processional music and a pause of remembrance to John Shepherd (who led the reestablishment of the ritual and taught the villagers all the old songs), before concluding with more cider and merrymaking at the village cricket club.
Wassailing rituals vary from place to place, with a variety of blessings, toasts and songs dependent on the locality. In Herefordshire and Wales, wassailing is often combined with midwinter rituals of spiritual-cleansing by fire, with flaming torches placed in tree branches and bonfires lit.
The fact that pieces of toast are used as part of a ‘toast’ may not be a coincidence. In former years, toasted breads and cakes were often used as a flavouring in mulled wine and cider, hence ‘drinking a toast’. The pieces of toast first used in wassailing probably were these flavourings.