The word wassail comes from Old English was hál, meaning “be you hale”, be healthful, be healthy. The tradition of wassailing apple orchards is about asking that the “Queen of the Orchard”, i.e. the oldest apple tree, be hale and able to give her health to the whole orchard so it produces a good crop.
The idea of celebrating the Queen Apple Tree is, I suspect, very ancient and probably far more ancient than many realise, quite possibly going way back into deep pre-history. Apples are good fruit and they store well. Some of you older folk may well remember picking and storing apples as I do from my childhood. They also make good drinks and alcoholic drinks last a lot longer than pressed juice. Apples can also be sliced and dried and are one of my favourites for dried fruit, so storage can be even easier. I can see our hunter-gatherer ancestors doing this which takes us back millions of years. Apple trees grow and proliferate in “wild forests”, usually forms of crab apples, but none the less tasty for that.
Our ancestors would have their known routes for travelling through the seasons and would return to a good grove of apple trees each year. As they lived there, for that season-time, so they would add their own dung and waste products into the soil, adding more fertility, giving back to the soil what they ate from it. And they would realise this, know it, and know it was the appropriate way to be with the earth and the land that sustained them.
The Victorian romantic idea of “wilderness” is a pretty lie. There is no such thing as pristine wilderness and nor has there ever been. Before us humans, the animals all roamed the land, leaving their dung in exchange for the food they ate from it, treading pathways, bending grasses, eating tree branches. And eating fruit and moving on so their dung – full of plant seeds – falls further away from the plant they ate and so changes the landscape. This is what the plants want too, and it changes the land from how it would be if there were no animals. And before that, plants grow and die, leaving their bodies to provide fertility for the earth. This changes things, all the time, every second. And so it always has. The life of the Earth takes and gives in return. This is how it works.
Our ancient ancestors knew what we call the Lady and the Lord, the Earth and the Sun and how they work together creating the seasons and the conditions for life. And they knew – far better than we do now – how they themselves were a part of this whole scheme, this cosmic plan. Feeling the spirit of the apple tree, they would want to thank her for what she’d given them, as we do now at Wassail. So, for me, I sense and feel our custom is ancient. It makes sense of being a part of the Earth, the solar system and the cosmos – a sense we’ve mostly lost since both the Neolithic and, very badly, since the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. That latter always feels to me to be a narrowing and shrinking of reality to fit inside some officious academic’s box.
In the cider-producing counties of the South West of England where I grew up, and in Herefordshire where I live now, as well as the South East of England where apples like to grow, we do the Wassail. The ceremony varies from place to place around the country, as each community works with its own spirit of place, but all have the same core elements. We sing and dance, celebrating the health of trees on Twelfth Night, encouraging them the better to thrive. The wassail awakens the apple trees, and scares away any evil thoughtform-spirits perhaps sent by bad neighbours, to ensure a good harvest in the coming year.
Where I grew up we had a wassail King and Queen to lead the song. The wassail Queen – the representative of the goddess – was lifted into the boughs of the tree where she placed the cider-dunked toast into the tree branches as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). In other places the youngest boy or “Tom Tit” does the job of hanging the cider-soaked toast in the tree. The whole company then recites an incantation.
A lovely folktale from Somerset shows this exchange of energy and love between the human guardian of the orchard and the spirits of the orchard itself. It tells of the Apple Tree Man and the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard who, since she fruits will be the Queen, and who holds the fertility of the orchard. In the tale, the man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the Apple Tree Queen (or in some versions Green Man) who reveals to him the location of buried treasure. I suspect the treasure is truly the forthcoming harvest.
Near where I live now, and like where I grew up, on the edge of Exmoor, the Wassailing is held on Old Twelfth Night (17 January). We all walk down from the pub to the orchard, carrying blazing torches, to make a circle around the Queen (oldest) Apple Tree, and light the 13 fires (for the 13 moons) surrounding her. We don’t have a Wassail Queen, but one of us hangs pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the bright spirits of the tree. And someone will fire a shotgun into the air to waken the gnome-earth spirits to be ready for Imbolc and the coming of spring and growth, and to scare away bad-neighbourly thoughtforms.
And we sing …
Old Apple tree, old apple tree,
We have come to wassail thee,
To bear and to bow apples enow.
and we’ll shout the last lines …
Hats full! Caps full! Three bushel bags full!
Barn floors full! And a little heap under the stairs.!
Yes, I’ll be out on 12th Night celebrating with our local Morris Side. We’ll drink the mulled cider, made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops and drunk from a large communal bowl. And singing up the Queen Apple Tree.