Wassailling has been associated with Christmas and New Year for as far back as the 1400s, it was a way of passing on good wishes among family and friends.
Wassail was an ale based drink seasoned with spices and honey and was served from huge bowls, often made of pewter or silver, the bowl would be passed around with the greeting 'Wassail'
There were three main ways to Wassail, the filling of a bowl or cup often refered to as a 'loving cup' which was passed around the room to be shared, taking a bowl around the houses, or as a celebration of the apple harvest and the blessing of the fruit trees.
Wassail gets its name from the Old English term "waes hael", meaning "be well". It was a Saxon custom that at the start of each year, the lord of the manor would shout 'waes hael'. The assembled crowd would reply 'drinc hael', meaning 'drink and be healthy'. The meaning survives in the modern English phrase ‘hale and hearty'. Thus this is a traditional ceremony which seeks to start off the first stirrings of life in the land and to help it emerge from winter and to ensure that the next season's crop of fruit, especially apples and pears, will be bountiful. As time went on, the tradition was carried on by people going from door to door, bearing good wishes and a wassail bowl of hot, spiced ale. In return people in the houses gave them drink, money and Christmas fare because they believed they would receive good luck for the year to come.
The contents of the bowl varied in different parts of the country, but a popular one was known as 'lambs wool'. It consisted of hot ale, roasted crab apples, sugar, spices, eggs, and cream served with little pieces of toast. It was the toast floating on the top that made it look like lamb's wool.
WASSAILILING OF THE APPLE TREES
Apple tree wassailing is a ceremony which involves drinking to the health of the apple trees.
The Apple trees were sprinkled with wassail to ensure a good crop. Villagers would gather around the apple trees with pots and pans and made A din to raise the Sleeping Tree Spirit and to scare off any demons.
The biggest and best tree was then selected and cider poured over its roots. Pieces of toast soaked in cider were placed in the forks of branches. The wassail song was sung or chanted as a blessing or charm to bring a good apple harvest the following year. This custom was especially important during a time when part of a labourer's wages was paid in apple cider. Landlords needed a good apple crop to attract good workers. Wassailing was meant to keep the tree safe from evil spirits until the next year's apples appeared.
The most common date for this custom to take place is the eve of Twelfth Night or Old Christmas Eve, (5th January) just at the end of the midwinter period when the Wild Hunt rides and chaos traditionally rules as the otherworldly horde broke through into human realms. In some cases, however, the ceremony takes places a little later, on 17th January. Either way, we might see this first fertility ceremony of the year as marking a return to human "normality" after the dark and dangerous days of midwinter. Either way, the date on which wassailing takes place is at least a couple of weeks before Imbolc, the festival which for modern pagans is generally seen as being the first fertility festival of the year.
Many families who practice wassailing their trees keep a special wassailing bowl, which may be of some sort of ceramic or turned from wood, though one or two silver ones have survived in richer farming families. Whatever the material, the wassailing bowl is often not unlike a punch bowl in having handles either side for ease of carrying and is very rarely used for any other function.
The wassailing ceremony frequently begins just before dark when the wassailing cup (or drink) is prepared. Many recipes survive for this but in the south Cotswolds a drink called Lamb's Wool, made of hot ale, eggs, spices, sugar, cream and roasted apples, was traditional. In other places plain cider was used and in yet others it was hot spiced ale. Despite the fact that wassailing is strongest in cider and perry areas, the beer or ale-based recipes are generally considered to be older and more traditional than those based on cider.
After dark, those taking part go to the orchard ceremonially bearing the wassail bowl filled with the prepared beverage. They also carry large sticks and such items as drums, kettles, pans and whistles - anything which can be used to create lots of noise.
The ceremony generally begins with the tree, usually the oldest and most venerable tree in the orchard, being variously serenaded with traditional "wake up" type of chants and rhymes alternating with speeches by the group's leader in praise of the tree, its fruitfulness in previous years and exhorting it to do even better in the coming year. The custom usually continues with the tree or trees being beaten about the trunk (and any branches within reach) with the sticks. This is believed to begin the process of awakening the tree and starting the sap flowing up the trunk. It is accompanied by much shouting and the making of as much noise as possible, again, this is believed to assist the tree in awakening from its winter sleep as well as frightening away any evil spirits which might be lurking in the branches, it was not uncommon for all present to bow to the trees, and sometimes a small boy was lifted into the branches where he would receive offerings of bread, cheese and cider, possibly representing the spirit of the tree receiving the gifts.
Finally pieces of toasted bread soaked in the prepared drink are thrust up into forks in the branches or hollows in the tree and left there as offerings, whether to the tree or to the robins. The remainder of the drink is generally sprinkled around and over the trunk of the tree, though in some places, part of it may also be ceremonially drunk by the participants.
One rite involved placing a ring in the filled bowl, with young unmarried people "dunking" for the ring; the one who succeeded in retrieving it without the use of his or her hands was guaranteed to be married within the year
Clearly wassailing, in both its fertility and social forms, is a ceremony which could easily be adapted to modern pagan practice, regardless of just how old or "pagan" it actually is, especially for those who are fortunate enough to have a suitable tree in their gardens or otherwise have access to one. However, in order to retain the spirit of the custom and therefore to retain its meaning and significance, one or two points should be borne in mind.
1)The ritual should be carried out on one of the two traditional dates, on Twelfth Night according to either the old or new calendars - in other words either 5th/6th or 16th/17th January.
2)Only use the ceremony in connection with orchard fruit trees, eg. apple, pear, plum or cherry.
3)Acquire and dedicate a vessel specifically to be a wassailing bowl and don't use it for anything else - a ceramic bowl or chalic, but it should be of a generous size.
4)Find and use one of the traditional recipes for preparing the wassailing cup.
The carrying of a burning brand or torch around the boundaries of your garden or other little bit of earth while calling up on the spirits of the land is also acceptable.
In modern times the mixture has been replaced by eggnog or spiced cider, but the legend of its inception goes right back to Saxon times and is spelt out in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and involves Rowena, daughter of Hengist, a Saxon mercenary, who presents the future King Vortigern with a bowl of mulled wine and the cheer "Waes Hael!", meaning good health. Vortigern, of course, falls in love with the beautiful Saxon maiden and marries her.
It was also believed, especially in the West Country, that the spirits of the trees were incarnated in robins and other small birds. Young lads representing these birds climbed the apple trees and cried 'Tit-tit, I want more to eat.' A piece of cake, cheese or bread was either handed up to him or dipped in cider and placed in the forks of the tree branches 'for the robins'.
When the farmers return to their homes, tradition dictates that they be denied entrance to their hearth until they guess the name of the roast being prepared within, a game which usually does not take that long! Then the party begins anew.
As this was the end of the traditional Christmas season, it was also seen as a time for one last revelry, with games and plays, often overseen by the Lord of Misrule, a peasant or similar unfortunate chosen by the gentry to be Lord for the Day. Wassail and Twelfth Night were part of the entire Yule celebration, a period of mid-winter festivity dating from well before the time of Christ. Over the centuries other elements have been added to this pagan celebration, so that aspects of Christian mythology, such as the mummers' plays starring King Herod and St George, are enacted side by side with more ancient symbology. Thirteen fires are lit about the area of the celebrations, twelve small and one extra large.
The Oxhorn Dance is another prehistoric remnant, consisting of six dancers bedecked in oxen costume. They circle around the foot of the tree that was honoured in the Wassailing ceremony, their stamping a signal to awaken the animal and earth spirits for spring time. The best of these performers is honoured by having an Oxhorn Cake, similar to the wassail cake, placed on his ox horn. He must then dance around and try to dislodge the cake as the watching revellers eat their own versions of this delicacy and try to guess whether the Oxhorn Cake will fall before or behind the ox performer.
The obvious pagan undertones of these celebrations did not augur well with the Christian church, especially the Puritan faction. In Scotland, John Knox put an end to Christmas in 1562. In England the observance of Christmas was forbidden by an Act of Parliament in 1644, which declared Christmas "an extreme forgetfulness of Christ by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights." The House of Commons sat on Christmas Day and sheriffs were sent out into the countryside to make sure that merchants opened for business on the day. This led to a situation of stand-off between Pro-and anti-Christmas factions and riots ensued. Upon the restoration of Charles II to the throne, Christmas celebrations were once again permitted.