The resurgence of cider as a drink has led to more UK apple tree orchards being restored and planted, and ancient rituals like wassailing performed.
Wassailing is an ancient practice dating back as far as the 11th century, and is a ritual still performed in cider orchards today at this time of year.
The word wassail has its origins in an Anglo Saxon toast, “Wes hal”, meaning to be whole, or to be in good health. The purpose of this curious pagan ritual is to wake the trees from their winter slumber, scare away any bad spirits that may be lurking there, and toast the health of the trees to ensure a bumper harvest come the autumn.
It began in the west of England in counties such as Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. These counties were well known for their special varieties of apples and pears, with higher levels of acidity making them unsuitable for eating, but perfect for the production of ciders, scrumpy and perry.
The custom became especially important around the 16th and 17th centuries, where cider orchards were so commonplace across the southern parts of England that farm labourers were part paid in cider. It was said that the more cider a man could drink the more valuable he was as a worker!
The ritual would either take place on the eve of the twelfth night, the 5th of January, or the old twelfth night, the 17th of January. It is the first pagan fertility ritual of the year, and it is believed to be a relic of the sacrifice to Pomona – the ancient Roman goddess of fruitful abundance.
Before the ceremony the wassail drink is prepared. This was made in a special ceremonial bowl shaped like a large goblet, and may have been made from ceramic, turned wood or in a few wealthy cases, silver.
The exact recipe of the drink varied hugely from region to region. Curiously it is thought that the oldest and most traditional recipes are based on a hot spiced ale rather than cider, and some recipes call for the addition of eggs, cream, sugar and roasted apples. This version of the drink is known as ‘Lambs Wool’. However these days it is a lot more common for the drink to be a mulled cider.
As with the drink, the ceremony varied from region to region and even village to village. It began just before dark, when the local people gathered to be lead by a chosen wassail king or queen in procession to the orchard. With them they would bring the prepared wassail drink, along with pots and pans, sticks, buckets, whistles, even shot guns! These items were to be used to create lots of noise to scare away the evil spirits from the trees.
On reaching the orchard, the crowd would gather round the oldest tree, where there would be speeches in praise of the fantastic tree and its bounteous crops of previous seasons. It would be implored to perform just as well, if not better in seasons to come. Each participant would drink from the goblet and toast the trees good health with a song or rhyme.
Here's one example of a toast originating in Devon:
Health to thee, good apple tree, Well to bear pocket fulls, hat fulls, Peck fulls, bushel bag fulls!
Another stems from Gloucestershire:
Blowe, blowe, bear well, Spring well in April, Every sprig and every spray, Bear a bushel of apples against, Next new years day!
Then the crowd would begin to beat their pots and pans, beat the trunk with their sticks and fire their shotguns into the highest branches, creating as much ruckus as they possibly could. All this commotion was intended to begin to wake the tree and to scare away evil spirits.
Finally, pieces of toast that had been soaked in the ceremonial drink were placed in nooks and forks in the trees branches and left there as offerings. More drink was sloshed liberally over the trunk and around the base of the tree, the remainder being finished up by the participants.
The resurgence in popularity of cider in recent years has seen old orchards restored and many new ones planted not just commercially, but in private and community gardens. As a result many communities are embracing the tradition of wassail.
There are plenty of wassailing events to get involved in right across the country, mainly in the est. From large events attended by hundreds of people such as the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd to the smaller scale community run events such as the one organised by Horfield Organic Community Orchard in Bristol - there’s a wassail to get involved with where ever you are. If not, why not organise one at your local orchard? It's a great excuse to gather local people together to enjoy the music, fun and merriment, and of course that all important cider.