January 17th – the old Twelfth Night – is traditionally the time for wassailing, the Anglo-Saxon custom of visiting the local orchard to awaken the apple trees and scare away any evil spirits who might threaten the crop.
From ‘waes hael’ meaning ‘good health’, wassailing is basically a drinking ritual aimed at fostering fruitfulness in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Coming just as memories of midwinter feasting (Christmas, Solstice, Saturnalia) are starting to fade, it’s a reason to be cheerful at the coldest time of the year.
Half a dozen years ago, a drunken Advent gathering at my place in Crystal Palace decided to hold its own wassail in the nearby allotment, where one of the party had recently planted two tiny apple trees.
A few weeks later, a friend and I ventured into darkest Sussex to see how it was done. Another, seasoned pagan, friend drove us across the fields down a remote farm track. Suddenly we were among a couple of hundred expectant people. Someone handed me a flaming torch – they’re surprisingly heavy – and the crowd processed towards the orchard and encircled the king tree. Songs were sung, men pranced, and a child placed an offering of bread in the fork of the tree. Then, at the sound of a gunshot, we all made the ‘hullabaloo’ which would let the spirits know that, in this orchard, humans were in charge.
The order of service used by the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men provided the model for the suburban wassail which continued for the next five years. On the middle Sunday of January, we would tank up from the wassail bowl – I like this simple recipe for mulled cider – gather some spoons and pan lids from my kitchen and make for the allotment, feeling simultaneously foolish and pleased with ourselves. It was usually raining but, fuelled by alcohol, we always got through the half-hour liturgy and usually wassailed a few other fruit trees and bushes for good measure as well.
The best bit was seeing the windows in the surrounding buildings fill with people wondering what on earth we were doing. As a result, the fruit crops on the allotment improved dramatically and our hostess would bring the results, in the form of raspberry gin, to next year’s wassail. You could say we had created a virtuous wassailing circle.
Until recently a quaint folk custom kept only in the most rural areas, wassailing now seems to be on the rise. Given that Britain is no longer an agricultural society, the modern wassail is probably more about forging our relation to place than assuring the crop.
Having recently moved to the West Country to an area traditionally made up of apple orchards, my own wassailing future looks good. The Friends of Woolley wassail takes place in the community orchard at Woolley Grange a little later this year on 30th January.