Wassail is derived from the Anglo-Saxon greeting “Waes Hael” which means “Be of good health”.
The first recorded reference is in the fifth Century. Rowena, the daughter of Hengist, gave a bowl of mulled wine to Vortigern saying “Waes Hael” to which he replied “Drinc Hael”.
The Wassail became part of twelfth night carousals to welcome in the New Year in each manor. It is traditionally celebrated on 17th January which is the old twelfth night in the Julian Calendar before the change to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. This date is still known as “The Old Twelfy” in parts of the West Country.
The earliest reference to agricultural wassailing was in 1486 in St Albans.
Tree wassailing was well-established by Elizabethan times.
There was also a “Round the houses” wassailing – equivalent to Christmas carolling in which people went around the houses in a village singing wassailing songs in return for food and drink.
Tree wassailing was not a pagan festival but spiritual. It was intended to drive out bad spirits from an orchard and encourage good spirits and fertility for the year to come. It co-existed comfortably with Christian ceremonies (e.g. harvest-time).
There are many Wassail traditions and the form of wassailing varies in different parts of the country.
Traditionally there is a King and Queen of the Wassail and the Queen is lifted into the branches of one of the apple trees as part of the blessing.
“Evil” spirits are driven out of the orchard by making lots of noise – banging pots, pans, drums, even in some places firing shotguns.
The “blessing” of the trees includes anointing them with cider made from the previous year’s crop of apples and leaving pieces of cider-soaked toast in the branches as offerings to the robins who are the guardians of the orchard.
Mulled cider is traditionally drunk during the ceremony and is often drunk comunally from a “Wassail Bowl” which is passed around the wassailers to share.
The pictures above are from the first Wassail held at Holcombe Community Orchard.