In Anglo-Saxon English, ‘waes hail’ means ‘be you healthy’. Wassailing has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years, to wake the trees and ensure a good harvest. It usually takes place between New Year and the old Twelfth Night, which, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, fell on what is now 17th January. The tradition is still practised today.
The oldest or best tree is chosen as the orchard guardian and its roots are ceremonially nourished with cider. Pieces of toast are then placed in the branches by the Wassail Queen or the youngest boy, the Tom Tit, to honour and feed the robin, which represents the good spirits. The revellers fire shotguns through the branches or bang vigorously on saucepans to frighten the evil spirits away. They serenade the trees with traditional wassail songs and partake liberally from a communal wassail bowl containing hot cider, sweetened and spiced, topped with slices of toast as sops. An alternative wassail ritual concerns the villagers going door to door, singing and drinking the health of those they visit, and generally kicking up a rumpus. The roots of wassailing may go back a very long way. A Celtic myth sees apple trees as providers of life and energy, linked to rebirth after winter. Such rites as taking an earthenware cup of wassail and roasted crab apples, drinking half then throwing cup and contents at the tree, are sometimes represented as a sacrifice to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit.
To learn more about orchard lore and to find out how you can start an orchard in the tiniest of spaces, reach for Naomi Slade’s gorgeous book An Orchard Odyssey.
For a classic guide to fruit trees for both amateur and expert, reach for Ben Pike’s The Fruit Tree Handbook
Wassail ©Ben Pike The Fruit Tree Handbook
Apple Trug ©Naomi Slade An Orchard Odyssey