Cylch Blodeuwedd

Druidic Grove in North-West Wales

Wassailing

by Oak King - October 18th, 2010.
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The ancient custom of wassailing is in our days usually seen as part of the Christmas festivities but many argue that it is much older than that. This can easily be believed for there can be no doubt that the word itself is of anglo-saxon origin, deriving from waes hael, which means be hale or be whole, in other words be healthy or good health. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in 1135, takes us back to the banquet thrown by Hengist where his beautiful daughter Rowena salutes the future King of Britain Vortigern wit the words ‘Waes hael!‘ The Norsemen used to cheer a similar ‘Veis heill’! As both the Anglo-Saxons and Norse used to welcome guests by presenting them with a horn or goblet of ale or mead, the term evolved into a toast and when the Normans arrived on British shores they saw it as a blessing of the inhabitants of Britain in general.

What remains today is largely memories of young folks going from house to house on Twelfth Night, singing Wassail songs while holding out for food and drink and, when offered, would then bless the household and move on. This is referred to as social wassailing whilst in the far distant past it was almost certainly more relevant to people to bless their crops and livestock in order to ensure a good harvest in the newly beginning year and this was done by wassailing them. Even today, where there are pockets of the tradition survive (Whimple/Devon and Carhampton/Somerset for instance), people still salute for instance their apple trees, which shows just what a major role apples still play in the economy of the West Country for example.

So, how and when was/is it done? Although sometimes wassailing is done on the present Twelfth Night on the 5th January, traditionalists still adhere to ‘Old Twelfey Night’ on the 17th January. In the case of apple tree wassailing the ceremony usually begins just before or after dark by choosing the oldest or most venerable tree and praising it with chants and rhymes for its fruitfulness in previous years with the hope that it may do even better in the coming harvest. Then the tree spirits are awakened by sounding horns, beating kettles and saucepans or firing guns. Sometimes the tree is even gently beaten with sticks. From the wassail bowl the liquid, plain or spiced cider, is poured all over the roots and either a wassail cake or toast soaked in cider placed in the forks of the branches. There used to be the belief that the tree spirits were incarnated in robins and other small birds and sometimes young boys were lifted onto the trees representing them and who would then receive gifts of bread or cheese. Finally Wassail songs are sung to the tree and dancing round it commences. An interesting end to the proceedings is known from Devon where after the proceedings the menfolk would not be let into the house until they have guessed the kind of roast that’s being prepared inside. Isn’t this a wonderful example of women being the guardians of a threshold (easily imaginable as between this world and another world) whose permission must be sought and gained in order to cross it?

Needless to say that there are many local variations to the ceremony and manifold too are the rhymes that are chanted. To illustrate this, the following is a rhyme that has come down to us from Devon:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel–bushel–sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

And this one stems from Gloucestershire:

Blowe, blowe, bear well,
Spring well in April,
Every sprig and every spray
Bear a bushel of apples against
Next new year’s day

Of all the rhymes I came across, this one from Devon which is my personal favourite and obviously of great antiquity:

“Wassaile the trees

That they may beare

You many a plum, and many a peare;

For more or less fruits they will bring,

As you do give them wassailing.”

(1647)

Again, from Devon hails this powerful blessing of crops and biests:

Good luck to the hoof and horn
Good luck to the flock and fleece
Good luck to the growers of corn
With blessings of plenty and peace

Being still part of a well known folk song known as the Somerset Wassail, this rhyme was widely used in social wassailing:

Wassail, oh wassail all over the town
The cup it is white, the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the beer of the best barley

This social variant of wassailing may well have its roots in the Saxon custom of the Lord of the manor at the beginning of the year shouting Waes hael! to which the assembled crowd replies Drinc hael!, meaning drink and be healthy.

Stripped from the later Christian embroidery and taken back to its true roots, wassailing offers itself easily as a ritual activity for which this time of Imbolc is suited like no other. Now that we begin to prepare the ground and put first seeds into soil we might as well combine this with a simple ritual, based on the ancient tradition of wassailing, to honour the earth and invoke the spirits inherent in the seeds, plants and trees around us. This chimes in well with the earliest recorded practice of pouring sanctified liquid onto dormant crops and orchards after the harvest to bless the ground for the coming of spring, a practice which then evolved into apple tree wassailing. Some of us might keep chickens, goats or other livestock so why not show them reverence that way too? And if we have a chance to get together with like-minded people we may even go as far as wassailing our own life, and/or that of others, to invoke fruitfulness in our personal and spiritual development through the coming year.

In the hope that this might fire your imagination to create an even more meaningful start into the new year, I’ll drink to thee and wish thee

WASSAIL!!!

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