Where I live, in Herefordshire, is an apple-country (and a mistletoe country too). We grow apples very well here and have many excellent ciders too. I was brought up in Devon and Somerset, two other apple and cider countries, so the apple god and goddess are in my bones. All these counties have long wassailing traditions and tonight I’ll be joining in a Wassail at Stoke Prior up near Leominster, with the Leominster Morris side.
Singing to the trees is probably near as ancient humankind too. Trees have given us fruits, leaves, bark and their wood as long as even archaeologists can remember. Apples are old trees and we’ve eaten their fruit for millions of years, while we were still proto-human some 4 million years ago, long before homo sapiens began to walk the Earth about 250,000 years ago.
The apple tree has been a part of the mythos of mankind for a very long time and from many places in the world, perhaps the best-known story is of the Garden of Eden with the tree as the fruit that gives the knowledge of good and evil. In Celtic terms that would be the kenning of the pairs of opposites, of duality, I-and-thou, the power that enables love and caring, that enables relationships. The apple has long been revered as this source of the ability to know self and to know other. In the Celtic tradition the simplistic concept of good/bad that was pushed so hard by the Christian religion does not really exist, we see more deeply, consider things far more than a childish good/evil approach. We live with the Threads, what the Nordic tradition calls the Wyrd, the web of Life, so we know, ken, there are no simple answers and we can’t tritely label people as goodies or baddies.
This means life is far more complex for us, we have to think, we have to ask, we have to grow and learn. And we have to relate to the world around us, not just use it in the childish manner that’s become so common over the past couple of thousand years.
The midwinter custom of wassailing is just one of the ways we relate to the Earth.
The word wassail is old English (OE) comes from the Anglo-Saxon toast wæs þu hæl, “be thou hale” — i.e., “be in good health”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “waes hael” is the Middle English spelling parallel to OE “wes hal”. The American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, gives Old Norse “ves heill” as the source of Middle English “waeshaeil”.
Christmas was not celebrated anywhere before the third century, and only gradually moved northwards through Europe. Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas day 800. It was probably the Normans who brought the celebration to England. Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night (mostly regarded as January 6, but more properly the evening of January 5). However lots of people wassail on Old Twelvey Night (January 17) as that would have been the Twelfth Night date before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. We hope to go to a local wassail that night, where our local side, the Foxwhelp Morris, will be doing the wassail.
Singing to the Trees
Wassailing is about honouring the Apple Tree, the giver of wisdom, the tree of kenning, and about asking for the fruits to be good in the forthcoming year so there is a good harvest for eating and for cider.
This process of asking for good harvest is about making a commitment to the land and plants and animals that give us our food. The process is “We give you so please will you give us?”, a process of exchange, which is in itself the fundamental premise of duality … the wisdom of the apple tree.
We sing the wassail songs and decorate the tree with toast – grilled bread, the grain/fruit which is the staff of life to so many peoples all around the world. Grain, wheat seeds, were likely the very first things we learned to harvest and then to grow when we discovered agriculture some 25,000 years ago. But we had been eating the fruit of the trees for millions of years before that.
behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat …
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