Friday, 8 January 2010


Wassailing has been in the news recently, with the usual discussions about what is the correct dates, origins of the custom, what to drink etc. There was an item on our local BBC TV news programme yesterday evening, which was fun but slightly annoying for reasons I'll mention.

We usually have a wassail on the second Saturday of January, mainly for our friends in Wickham Morris. Regrettably, due to the exceptional weather it was necessary to cancel due to the state of the roads approaching the orchard. Ordinarily they are merely very bad with potholes, narrow, neglected and winding with horses and their riders 'Ectually, eh DO own the road, dahling!' round every corner, but add to this an inch of compacted ice and it would have been irresponsible as well as just too much like very hard work to go ahead.

We were first asked to consider making our orchard available for a wassail about 11 years ago after moving to Botley, when I joined Wickham Morris as a mandolin player. The Morris squire was sensitive to the fact that as Christians we might have a problem with a 'pagan' practice. I researched wassailing and couldn't find anything any necesarily more 'pagan' about it than, for example, string quartets or harvest suppers. We made a start and apart from a few cancellations or greatly reduced celebrations due to inclement weather have done our 3 wassail for 10 years, with up to 100 guests.

Your good health!

The word 'wassail', as one of the team said on the TV past night, is an Anglo Saxon greeting or salutation meaning 'good health' or 'be thou whole!', so if that's 'pagan' then so is wishing someone good morning or happy birthday. The 'essential' ingredients for a wassail are some sort of communal warm spiced drink, generally cider or beer based, some song and fun outdoors, or at the door of a big house where some food and drink would be brought out. This latter sort of wassail is described in Thomas Hardy's novel 'Under the Greenwood Tree' where the members of the 'Mellstock Quire' perform sacred and secular songs from door to door in the village where they are both the 'barn dance' and church music group. Several of the traditional wassail songs request food and drink to be brought out to the revellers in the street, or let them in and give them 'your mouldy cheese and some of your Christmas loaf'.

Guns and cider don't mix!

The Somerset/west country wassailing custom is more to do with orchards, and 'traditionally' involved a bonfire, discharge of shotguns into the trees, putting toast in the trees 'for the robins' , beating the trees with sticks, and sundry other customs. Morris dancing is NOT part of any wassail tradition, but has been inserted since Morris dance sides are just the sort of folks who want to do wassailing!

There is no authoritative wassail 'tradition', and just as with Morris dancing itself, wassailing has been re-invented as various folks saw fit, picking and choosing which bits to include, leave out, or make up. We certainly leave out the guns, although they are very traditional. We put bags of peanuts and fat balls in the trees for the small birds, and have also added to the tradition by putting up bird boxes in some of the larger trees! We sometimes pray and give thanks to the God of the orchard, well I do anyway. He will see to any evil spirits, they're not afraid of sticks or guns! I see the tradition as neither Christian nor pagan, merely 'folk' or 'people', or 'country'. Or indeed, just fun with friends and a seasonal reflection.

Some people find the idea of 'paganism' very exciting, certainly more 'sexy' than Richard Dawkins' stark atheist materialism which is increasingly being rammed down our throats, others are profoundly put off by it. This is not the time or place for a sermon or long essay on Christmas trees, Puritanism, symbolism in Christianity etc, and I don't particularly want a load of comments on this. But to strongly assert that wasailing is 'pagan' could mean Christians felt the need to avoid wassailing, which would be a pity.

Anyhow, Wassail to all!


simmer some orange zest (remove with a potato peeler, then squeeze in the orange juice and discard the pith) and an orange stuffed with a dozen cloves in 2 pints of apple juice with a stick or 2 of cinnamon for half an hour or so. Add 6 pints of strong dry cider, add sugar to taste and bring up to a sensible temperature and serve in stone mugs, preferably around a bonfire with good friends in an orchard.

SONG (irregular, to tune of 'the miller of Dee' or similar. Or whatever you like!)

Old apple tree, we wassail thee
and hope that thou dost bear
for the Lord does know where we shall be
when apples come again another year

for to bear well, and to bloom well,
how happy we shall be
let every man take off his hat
and shout to the old apple tree

old apple tree, we wassail thee
and hope that thou dost bear
hats full, caps full
bushels, bags and barrels full
and a little heap under the stair

hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!