Wassailing is a tradition which dates back to Anglo Saxon times, which is where the term comes from – waes hael meaning “good health” – and is a pre-Christian tradition that gradually evolved into carolling, and the tradition we are continuing today of wassailing our fruit trees.
Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night, though most people insist on wassailing on "Old Twelvey Night" (January 17) as that would have been the correct date before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar messed things up in 1752.
Wassailing fruit trees was especially popular in the South and West of England, but this may be linked to these areas having a lot of large orchards. The tradition, sometimes called “howling” involves lots of variations, but the main themes are:
- Making noise around the trees – (maybe to wake them up?)
- Spilling apple juice or cider onto the tree roots
- Hanging toast (sometimes soaked in cider) in the branches of the tree
- Calling on the tree, with a rhyme, chant or song, to have a good crop in the coming year – sometimes under threat of being dug up or cut down if it doesn’t!
Some traditions used to involve firing muskets into the tree branches, or beating them with sticks!
The Windmill Community Garden style of wassailing has taken all these elements, but we’ve swapped the tree-harming for tickling them with special “tickling sticks” that we make for the event!
And being nice to trees can be well worth doing. There is a story from Somerset, of a man who offered his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard, and in return, was visited by the “Apple Tree Man” - the spirit of the oldest tree in the orchard and controlled its fertility. The Apple Tree Man was pleased with his visitor, so pleased in fact that he helped the man to find a buried treasure trove amongst the trees!
If you want to wassail your own trees, then you can find many different rhymes, though they often share lots of elements, and probably have descended from one or two "parent" rhymes that were re-made after being taken to other places and half-remembered. Here are a few we like:
Carhampton Apple Wassail Song
Old Apple Tree we wassail thee and hope that thou might bear
For the lord doth know where we shall be come apples another year
For to bloom well and to bear well, so merry let us be.
Let everyone take off their hat and shout out to the old apple tree!
Pear and Plum Tree Wassail
Wassail the trees that they may bear
Many a plum and many a pear
For more or less fruits they will bring
As you do give them wassailing.