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24 September 2014
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BBC Points West Archive on Demand


Wassailers
Taunton Cider's wassailers in 1982

Wassailing: 1982

Points West travels to the orchards of Somerset to witness the Taunton Cider Company's annual apple tree wassail. Held aloft by three burly blokes, the cider queen performs a ritual that will guarantee a good crop the following year.


On Twelfth Night, as tradition would have it, a procession of wassailers holding aloft their cider queen approaches a sacred apple tree, whereupon one of the group hands a slice of toast (which has been soaked in cider) to her, who then proceeds to place the bread into the bole of the tree.

This they believed would ward off evil spirits and help guarantee continued profits for the company the following year! 

In fact, it was also a significant ceremony for farm labourers, since most would have been paid in cider and as a result a poor harvest meant less to drink.

As early as 1400s people were drinking to the health of the apple trees to ensure a good crop of fruit in the following autumn.

Morris dancer shouting
Morris dancer cheers for the apple tree

The tradition is found in several cider producing areas of England where the following is sometimes heard reverberating around the orchards:

Wassail the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum and many a pear:
For more or less fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.

Wassail comes from the Saxon 'waes hael', meaning 'be of good health' and typically the ceremony would involve singing, story telling and dancing, as well as literally toasting the apple tree with a slice of toasted bread dipped in cider.

A large jug of fermented apple juice would be passed around and its contents poured around the roots of the tree.

And, as it is with these ancient customs and superstitions, there are plenty around who believe it works.

Miss Taunton Cider 1982
Miss Taunton Cider 1982

According to one of the wassailers featured in this Points West film, the previous year's apple harvest had been a poor one, due a less-than-enthusiastic band of wassailers - something he hoped to put right in this particular year!

In the film, we see the wassailers carrying their queen (sporting a Taunton Cider sash) through the orchards, accompanied by morris dancers and singers.

The ceremony culminates with more music-making and concludes with the firing of three shot guns - another ruse to scare away the evil tree spirits and no doubt anyone intent on trying their hand at a bit of scrumping!

We don't know who the 1982 cider queen is - do you have any ideas?

video Wassailing: 1982 >
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last updated: 23/12/05
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