One of my favourite folk rituals is the practice of wassailing. This is done in apple-growing districts to wake up the apple trees and encourage them to produce plenty of fruit in the autumn. I love it so much that I planted an apple tree in my garden so I could wassail it.

Apple blossom. Photo by Maky Orel on Pixabay [Public Domain, CC0]

Apple blossom. Photo by Maky Orel on Pixabay [Public Domain, CC0]

There are many wassailing songs and customs. In apple-growing districts, they celebrate the Apple Wassail. Some districts put toast in the branches of the apple tree for the robins. Some share mulled cider and pour it on the roots of the tree. Some beat pots and pans and fire guns through the branches to wake up the trees. 

In districts where there are no orchards, they carry the wassail bowl from house to house, and this is known as the visiting wassail. In South Wales, the custom includes the Mari Lwyd.

The Mari Lwyd. Photo by R Fiend [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Mari Lwyd. Photo by R Fiend [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The name wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon “Waes hael” meaning “Be whole/well/hallowed/healthy”. The traditional reply is “Drinc hael“.

The wassail cup was often made from maple wood, which does not impart any flavour to the drink. The drink in it was frequently mulled cider or mulled wine. If it includes apple stewed until it goes cloudy, it’s known as lamb’s wool.

The wassail ritual is very simple, and consists of beating pots and pans to wake up the tree, singing a wassail song, and sharing mulled cider; not forgetting to pour a little near the roots of the tree, or to put toast in the branches for the robins.

My favourite wassailing song is The Gower Wassail.

We often say one of the traditional apple wassail rhymes:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Stand fast bloom, bear well top!
Hats full, caps full,
Bushel, bushel bags full,
And a little heap under the stairs.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

I have been doing a wassailing ritual for over twenty years now. It’s slightly different every year, but in recent years, I have gone for the simplest version of the ritual, because often, less is more.

Apple trees. Photo by H Schmider on Pixabay [Public Domain, CC0]

Apples. Photo by H Schmider on Pixabay [Public Domain, CC0]

Last year, as wassailing is usually celebrated on 17 January, the same day as Plough Monday, we also blessed our garden tools.



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4 thoughts on “Wassailing

  1. The Jewish New Year of the trees, Tu B’Shvat (The 15th day of Shvat), occurs at this time of year. What an interesting synchronicity that an ancient celebration related to orchard trees in the Mideast is celebrated on the 15 day of lunar-solar cognate month to solar mid January. You indicated that the Apple Wassal was in many districts celebrated on 17 January. The 15th of of any Jewish month is the full moon of that month. The holiday’s Talmudic purpose was to ensure that the biblical prohibition against taking fruit from any orchard tree before the completion of the third year was obeyed. BuTu B’Shvat was the day on which an orchard tree was a year older.

    Typically 15 Shvat will almost always occur a bit latter than 17 January. However, as it is seen as the day when the trees begin to wake up from their winter slumber, and the ‘sap starts to flow, it does bring up images of Imbolc as the harbinger, if not the actual beginning of Spring.
    These calendar synchronicities across cultures are always interesting, however I find it best to be very open, poetically, mythically, and scientifically, as to their origin or meaning

    Here are several articles on this holiday


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