Wassailing

It’s the time of year for Wassailing in the apple-growing regions of England (Herefordshire, Somerset, Worcestershire, etc), and places where the weather is warm enough that fruit trees can blossom. (In Ontario, Canada, we wait until February to do the Wassailing.)

Wassailing consists of two distinct practices: carrying a Wassail bowl from house to house to bless the inhabitants (and hope that they will give you food and drink), and blessing the apple trees in orchards. Different regions had slightly different versions of the practice but most seemed to consist of singing and dancing for the trees, firing guns or banging pots and pans to wake them up; drinking Wassail, which is mulled cider with stewed apples in it (known as “lamb’s wool”), pouring some Wassail on the roots of the apple trees, and leaving toast soaked in cider in the trees for the robins.

In England, the Robin is a bird with lots of folklore associated with it, and it is a totally different bird to the North American Robin, which was named after it (despite having a perfectly good Indigenous name, probably several names in different Indigenous languages).

The European Robin

Also note that in British English, cider always means hard cider (alcoholic cider) and the thing you call cider in North America is just called apple juice in British English. So any Wassail recipe that uses apple juice is doing it wrong. Unless you’re intentionally making a non-alcoholic version, of course.

According to JG Frazer in The Golden Bough, many different cultures have customs which are similar to Wassailing, and which are aimed at waking up the trees in spring.

If you have any apple trees (or other fruit trees) in your garden, you can Wassail them. Find your favourite Wassail song (my favourite one is The Gower Wassail), gather some neighbours to bang pots and pans and drink the Wassail with you, and don’t forget to leave some toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins.

The Gower Wassail

Wassail recipe

  • Cider (for the authentic version, use alcoholic cider)
  • Peeled and cored apples (the tangier, the better)
  • Cinnamon sticks (optional)
  • Root Ginger (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar (optional)
  1. Heat the cider in a pan (don’t bring it to the boil if you don’t want the alcohol to evaporate).
  2. Chop the apples into small chunks and add them to the cider (or you can stew them separately and spoon the mush into the cider to get the lambs’ wool effect).
  3. Add the cinnamon stick, root ginger, and sugar.
  4. Simmer until the flavours have melded together.
  5. Serve in a Wassail bowl or two-handled mug.

Wassail ritual

Make toast and cut into 2” squares.

Prepare your wassail mixture.

Process to your apple trees.

Bang pots and pans. Fire off pop-guns or firecrackers if you have them.

Sing your chosen Wassail song(s).

Recite the wassail blessing:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree

Whence thou may’st bud

And thou may’st blow

And whence thou may’st bear apples enow.

Hatsfu! Capsful! Bushel bushel sacksful!

And my pockets full too, huzzah!

And my pockets full too, huzzah!

Shout “hip hip hurray!” three times.

Pour Wassail mixture onto the roots of the trees.

Hang the pieces of toast in the branches of the apple tree.

Return to the house.

Sing, dance, feast, and make merry.


Other Wassailing posts


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