By chance, when walking the dog yesterday,something caught my eye on the village notice board. It was a wassailing night, and as I read further, I thought damn, I bet I’ve missed it…but no…it was on that very evening, Friday 17th January or Old Twelfth Night. I was so excited because I am very interested in old customs, traditions and folklore. It always fascinates me the amount of faith people had in these ancient rituals, and the weird and wonderful ceremonies that they held, in hope that a greater power would be listening and grant them an abundant crop in the year to come.
I knew a little about wassailing, having read briefly about it a few years back, but I had never seen or taken part in a real life wassail. The word wassail is derived from the Anglo Saxon ‘wes hal’ and means ‘good health’ or ‘be whole’. The custom can be traced back to the late 17th century and is performed to protect the trees from evil spirits and to make them bear a plentiful crop.It is usually carried out in the West of England and involves gathering around an apple tree, singing carols and toasting the tree.
I noted the phone number and hurried back home to find out more. I felt that this would be a good opportunity to get involved in an event which was relevant to an area which I want to investigate through my art, namely our co-existance with nature.
The lady who was organising the event was called Margaret, and she and her husband run a local nursery in the village. Her husband is an “apple expert” (not of the Mac variety!) and he grows many types along the border of their garden. I was told to meet at 6pm at a house 5 minutes walk up the hill from where I live. I didn’t need to bring anything, but decided to take a flask of home made mulled wine as it was a cold damp night. Other wassailers soon gathered, and we were given song sheets and warm drinks before heading out to the garden to find the “king ” apple tree, to give it our blessing so that it may produce a good crop in the forthcoming season.
We sang a few of the wassail carols, before singing the Carhampton Wassail which goes like this :
Old apple tree, we wassail thee, And hoping thou wilt bear For the Lord doth know where we shall be Till come another year. For to bloom well, and to bear well So merry let us be, Let every man take off his hat, And shout to the old apple tree! Old apple tree, we wassail thee, And hoping thou wilt bear Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagfuls And a little heap under the stairs, Hip, Hip, Hooray!
A piece of toast was then hung from a branch on the tree, as an offering to the Robin, who represents the ‘good spirits’ of the tree, and help to keep it pest free throughout the year. Some of the wassailers then clattered pots and pan lids to ward off any evil spirits, and the remainder of the warm mulled wine or cider in our cups was poured at the roots of the tree, to give back its juices for nourishment.
This ritual was repeated in six gardens, including my own, and at each location refreshments were given, mainly home brewed cider or pressed apple juice, as well as home baked cakes and mince pieces. Finally we headed to the church/community centre where we wassailed the community orchard before heading indoors for more refreshments.
I have to say I really enjoyed the wassailing evening, and I think its important to keep these old traditions alive. In this case, we imported an English tradition into a Perthshire village, and the hope is that it will grow more each year until it is firmly established on the village calendar.