BBC Radio 4

What is Wassail?

Writer, The Archers

Apples on tree

Jim Lloyd and Joe Grundy are reviving the country tradition of Wassail in Ambridge, to be held on 17 January – the ‘old’ Twelfth Night under the Julian calendar. The idea is to bless the apple trees and encourage a healthy crop in the autumn. 

The name comes from the Old English phrase ‘waes hael’, which means ‘good health’. The tradition has continued, or been revived, in many of the apple growing areas of the UK, including Gloucestershire and Herefordshire (and Borsetshire, of course).

There are lots of variations, but a typical event would take place late afternoon or early evening.

Accompanied by a folk band, a morris side and/or a lone fiddler, people assemble in the orchard. Or a Wassail King and Queen –  wearing headdresses trimmed with greenery –  could lead a procession there. People may light their way by carrying blazing torches. 

There is often a bonfire. Everyone forms a circle around the trees and sings the Wassail song, throats lubricated with the Wassail drink of mulled cider topped with slices of toast.

They toast the trees. The King (or someone) pours a ring of cider around one of the trees. Then the Queen (or someone else) is lifted up to the branches of one, where she balances a piece of the toast in the crook of a branch. An incantation is recited, such as:

“Here's to thee, old apple tree, That blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An' all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!”

Sometimes shotguns are discharged into the air to scare off the evil spirits (and presumably anyone who hasn’t heard about the wassail).

The evening might progress round the bonfire with more music and comforting winter food – handwarmer pies and rich cake, for example – washed down with the rest of the mulled cider.

Keri Davies is an Archers scriptwriter and web producer (and took part in a wassail in his local orchard last year)

Explanation of the ‘old’ Twelfth Night – from Wikipedia

More Posts