Monday, 3 January 2011

Wassail for Beginners

Wassail at Thatchers Cider, a private event - photo by Neil Phillips

            Old Apple Tree we wassail thee,
            And hoping thou would bear;
            For the Lord doth know
            Where we shall be
            Till apples come again another year;
            For to bear well and bloom well
            So merry let us be.
            Let every man take off his hat
            And shout out to the old apple tree!

Anyone can do it. All you need is an apple tree, a loaf of bread and a couple of friends. And some cider.

1. Make mulled cider (consult The Naked Guide to Cider for an excellent recipe) and put in a bowl. In cases of extreme urgency, chuck cider in a pan, add gin as required and spice up with ginger.
2. Make toast
3. Gather pots and pans, trumpets, drums – anything that makes a noise.
4. Transport the items above to the orchard
8. Dip toast in bowl and place among branches of tree. You could send a child up the tree with the toast if you like. Or throw the toast. You’re not supposed to eat it though – it’s for the birds.
5. Raise bowl to senior tree and sing or chant the Wassail Song. You could walk round the tree if you like, or dance about. Whatever you like – it’s your wassail!
7. Bash, blow or bang your instruments. Shout and scream. Make a real old racket.
6. Drink, pass bowl, drink some more

The age of this peculiar winter rite varies depending on who you ask, but ‘waes hael’ is a Saxon expression meaning ‘good health’ and the habit of sharing a cup with friends and neighbours was imported by the German invaders in the 7th and 8th centuries. Before the Norman Conquest wassail was a village affair; on Christmas Eve revelers would go from house to house, entering by the front door, having a glug or two of mulled ale from a shared cup, singing, then leaving by the back. This is probably how the tradition of door-to-door carol singing got started.
When folksong collector Cecil Sharp went gathering wassail songs from around Somerset a century ago he found two dozen variations and one or two references that implied a long and unbroken history. The Curry Rivel wassail song goes like this:
            Wassail! and wassail! all over the town;
            The cup it is white and the ale it is brown;
            The cup it is made of the good old ashen tree,
            And so is the malt of the best barley.
            For it’s your wassail! and it’s our wassail!
            And it’s joy be to you, and a jolly wassail!
There follow several verses imploring “Master and Missus” for bread, cheese and cider – which, in spite of the traditional reference to beer, was almost certainly the beverage on offer. Then the last verse:
            The girt dog of Langport he burnt his long tail,
            And this is the night we go singing wassail!
            O Master and Missus, now we must be gone;
            God bless all in this house till we do come again.
            For it’s your wassail! and it’s our wassail!
            And it’s joy be to you, and a jolly wassail!
‘The girt dog of Langport’ refers to the Danes, who would often come up the River Parrett to attack Langport, the ancient inland port a few miles from Curry Rivel. Alfred’s defeat of the Danish leader Guthrun in 878 came as a relief to the local population, who were still celebrating it a thousand years later.
Shooting at trees - sound science?
 Visiting wassail still takes place in Curry Rivel and in one or two other villages, but sometime during those long centuries the main focus of the ceremony shifted from village to orchard, and people began singing versions of the familiar song. When John Aubrey went traveling around England after the Civil War he described how people in the West Country ‘Goe with their Wassell-bowle into the orchard and goe about the trees to bless them, and putt a piece of tost upon the roots’. It was also usual to bash pots and kettles or fire off guns, to awaken the spirits of the orchard.

They carried on doing this every year, unnoticed and unrecorded, until the 19th century, when working people moved in great numbers from country to town and all the old rural traditions began to die away. Before World War I there were a few farms around Minehead where wassail was still considered an essential part of country life; by 1920 the custom had all but disappeared and in the 1960s a researcher who traveled around Somerset interviewing farm cidermakers failed to find a single person who knew anything about wassail.
 Legend has it that the Butcher’s Arms kept the tradition alive through the century until, in 1974, it announced that lack of interest was forcing it to stop. Carhampton’s 20 orchards had fallen into neglect and were rapidly being grubbed up, so it didn’t look as though there would be anything to wassail for much longer anyway. In the end the Butcher’s Arms kept on holding its annual wassail on the evening of January 17, as it still does.
Thatchers wassail, a private event -
photo by Neil Phillips
A year earlier Taunton Cider had held its first wassail – which was followed by a bumper crop – starting a revival which has accelerated in the last few years. Taunton was responsible for a new addition to the wassail tradition, the choosing of a young Wassail Queen to do the toast-proffering business. 

These will vary year on year. Most take place on Old Twelfth Night (Jan 17) and support local charities. Some have limited space, so call ahead for info.

Butcher’s Arms           
The undisputed wassail capital of the world, this pub in Carhampton, not far from Minehead, kept the tradition alive through a long period of disinterest among the general public. They almost gave up once but kept going, and today the January festivities have acquired cult status. Unfortunately the survival of wassail has not prevented all but one of the village’s 20 orchards being grubbed up. Look out for the mulled cider made to a secret recipe that has been passed from landlord to landlord.

West Croft Farm
If you’re looking for the Glastonbury, sorry, Pilton Festival of wassail then this is it. The maker of Janet’s Jungle Juice has put the dark side of Brent Knoll on the winter party map with an exuberant fiesta of music, mild tree worship and cider. Expect a candlelit procession, roast hog and more.

Not to be outdone, Roger Wilkins has been wassailing for a decade now, with hundreds of people making their way down to Lands End Farm to bless his trusty apple trees – handy that they’re just across the lane from the cider barn. Look out for Chris Jagger, brother of Mick, who often performs at Rog’s shindigs.

Has the great advantage of being the easiest to get to. Tickets are a bit pricey but you get a mug of stew to soak up the cider and proceeds go to the charity picked by the Burnham Rotary Club. The Mangledwurzels have played there in the past.

Somerset Rural Life Museum
A more genteel affair, perhaps, than some of the above, but numbers are limited and tickets tend to go quickly. In the past they’ve had cider and apple juice from Hecks, apple cake and a ceilidh band. A Wassail King or Queen is chosen to lead the procession by the unusual method of hiding a dry bean in a cake. Whoever gets the bean (without choking on it) does the honours.

Barrington Court
Well-known these days for its cidermaking, Barrington Court hosts a major wassail event, complete with Mummers and Morris men. Look out for curiosities like a giant wicker apple on top of the bonfire.

This is an excerpt from The Naked Guide to Cider. In the book you'll also find answers to some intriguing questions - why is wassail usually celebrated on January 17? How is wassail good science?


  1. Any idea what the date is for Roger Wilkin's wassail.

    I'm keen to take a few pics plus enjoy a couple of glasses of cider


  2. It's this Saturday (the 15th) 7:30-11:30 :)

  3. Here's the review we did of a wassail in East Sussex -

  4. Curry Rivel are still doing it and have been since the last world war. We hold it on January the 5th Every year and will be tomorrow evening at the King William, Curry Rivel. Come along

  5. Yes, Curry Rivel are still doing it - I went along on Saturday to the busiest pub I've seen in years and heard the wassailers singing. Would love to speak to someone there about the tradition.