Orchard-Visiting Wassail

Wikipedia tells us …

In the cider-producing West of England (primarily the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) wassailing also refers to drinking (and singing) the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive.

An old rhyme goes: “Wassaile the trees, that they may beare / You many a Plum and many a Peare: / For more or lesse fruits they will bring, / As you do give them Wassailing.”

Wassail Queen & King

The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn.{“England In Particular”, Common Ground 2007} The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next, the wassail Queen will then be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she will place toast soaked in Wassail from the Clayen Cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). Then an incantation is usually recited such as

Here’s to thee, old apple tree, That blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An’ all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!

Then the assembled crowd will sing and shout and bang drums and pots & pans and generally make a terrible racket until the gunsmen give a great final volley through the branches to make sure the work is done and then off to the next orchard. Perhaps unbeknown to the general public, this ancient English tradition is still very much thriving today. The West Country is the most famous and largest cider producing region of the country and some of the most important wassails are held annually in Carhampton (Somerset) and Whimple (Devon), both on 17 January (old Twelfth Night).

Private readings about people in Somerset in the 1800s revealed that inhabitants of Somerset practised the old Wassailing Ceremony, singing the following lyrics after drinking the cider until they were “merry and gay:”

Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee, Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow, Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills, Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler biys, holler hurrah.

Wassail Ceremony

The ceremony itself typically consists of the farmer’s family, workers and friends gathering in the orchard in the evening. They are armed with sticks and shotguns and carrying a bowl of cider with pieces of toast in it. The favoured vintage variety, oldest or highest yielding tree is chosen. Then, everyone, in turn, eats a sop of toast and a piece is placed in a fork of the chosen tree to attract birds like the robin and the cider is then poured over the roots of the tree.

Libation follows from this, when the cider drinker tips his empty glass upside down to let the last few drops fall to earth. You can never spill your cider, you are only ever offering a libation to the goddess Pomona.

The whole company then dances round the tree, beating it at the base to dislodge insects, that the birds, attracted by the sop, then eat.

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