Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.
Gloucester Wassail - believed to date back to the middle ages and also sung at traditional wassailing times in North Wiltshire.
Tonight is the old Twelfth Night**, one of the traditional times to hold a wassailing ceremony. Wassails are sung from around Christmas time until today's date and are centuries old.
The purpose of a wassailing ceremony - apart from a good excuse to cheer up the winter blues - is to awaken the apple trees from their slumbers, give thanks for the apple harvest and to drive away evil spirits to ensure the next is a good one.
Our choirmaster is very keen on wassail songs, which we've always sung as a 'Happy New Year' welcome to the January term, but Saturday was the first time we'd been invited to perform at a proper Wassailing ceremony. This was held at The Courts, one of Wiltshire's finest gardens and best kept National Trust secrets.
The Courts is in Holt and the village morris side were also there; it turns out morris dancing is also closely associated with wassailing. They danced The Rose Tree which should be done around the 'father of the orchard' (or king apple tree), but the one at The Courts is very low growing, so they danced it round their band instead. They then danced The Hollow Tree, with the finale being an assemblage of the dancers sticks to resemble a venerable hollow tree.
Then it was our turn: we started with the Malpas Wassail which hails from Cornwall, then the Gloucester Wassail as shown above. The Green Man, our master of ceremonies (with a bright green face and dressed in a bright red coat with sprigs of holly around his hat) then found his king and queen of the orchard (a young boy and girl) to help with proceedings.
This involved the dressing of the king tree with cider dipped toast for the robin (the guardian bird), the pouring of lots of cider on the tree in thanks, and to kick-off the noisy part of the ceremony with a bang from a pretend gun (some ceremonies use the real thing!).
We sang The Apple Wassail (which hails from Somerset), drank our fill from the wassail bowl and then followed the morris men around the orchard making as much noise as we possibly could. Our instruments included a farting trombone, lots of rattles made that very afternoon, a football rattle, a vuvuzela, various pots and pans and me banging away like mad on our paella pan with a wooden spoon. NAH thought this was a most appropriate use of our pan as it could be held and struck like a gong ;)
Our final song was The Gower Wassail, which we learned for Christmas 2009 and can be found on YouTube (via the link) when we sang at Stourhead's winter Festival of the Voice. I can be seen lurking at the back in the mauve coat and greenish hat.
More dancing ensued including a mass participation dance to round things off. I suddenly found myself on the dance floor wearing an morrisman's large bowler hat, a-waving and clapping and leaping in the air. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the moves we learnt will be included in future choir rehearsal warm ups!
With the ceremony over, we wended our way past the warming bonfire, the twinkling candles in the trees, the tealight lined pathway and back into today's world.
* = wassail is from the Anglo-Saxon 'waes hael' = "be in good health"
** = today twelfth night is January 6th: the 'old' twelfth night is 17th January which is when January 6th was before our current calendar was introduced in 1752. This 'lost' 11 days from the old calendar. The fact that 17th January is one of the key dates for wassailing and there's many regional wassailing songs suggests how far back this tradition reaches.
Update: Here's the report from our local newspaper.