Wassail! *

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 when we sang at Stourhead's winter Festival of the Voice

More dancing ensued including a mass participation dance to round things off. I suddenly found myself on the dance floor wearing a 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 are many regional wassailing songs suggests how far back this tradition reaches.


  1. Sounds great. I love a wassail, me. We usually go to our local community orchard one but decided this year to have our own, so the toast and cider thing to our own allotment trees, and make a bit of a party of it at the same time. Alas it all came to nothing as I was too ill in the end. We will have another go, perhaps next weekend.

  2. I've never hear of that. Very interesting. You would think that some of those traditions would have made their way over here into the states. We've learned so many other traditions and holidays.

  3. Hello VP - sounds like you've wassailed up a splendid harvest for the Courts with all those festivities. I went to my first Wassail this weekend at Chiswick House - we had samba drummers, instead of morris men, but then that felt right for London (after all, it's not long til Carneval season). I'll pass on your wassail songs so we can extend our singing repertoire next year.

  4. That is so interesting! I can see you got lots of dancing :)
    Michelle could I ask you for help. I am looking for good seed producer in UK - maybe you could recommend somebody?

  5. I'd forgotten. Lovely post. Sunshine tomorrow according to the forecast. Had lots of emails about your solar farm proposals.

  6. That's an awful lot of wassailing! I must get along to one of these.

  7. Coincidentally, I'm just in from wassailing at Barrington Court (also NT) in Somerset. We were morris dancing there (I don't know of any traditional link between morris dancing and wassailing but it's the sort of thing we're in to!).
    Big advantage of doing Barrington is that they make their own (rather good) cider on the site!


  8. I liked that. There is valley in Wales - The Gwaun - where the locals celebrate New Year, i Think on the 13th. It is something to do with Gregorian and Julian calendars and a might excuse to get roaring drunk!

  9. Really enjoyed the YouTube links...beautiful voices and no one with their music sheets up in front of their face))). You must be so enthused by your choirmaster..he is a good guide by the looks of it.

  10. What a fun post! I seem to think a modified version of this happens in parts of newfoundland where outport darkness would whack their apple trees , scrub and wildisg tho they may be, with a broom to help it bear fruit. Probably some singing and dancing and imbibing of Screech would be involved as well.

  11. Wot a fun event and how wonderful to have gardens used for this sort of thing.
    When I ran the Bot Garden in Bristol we held musical events and one magical time some very modern experimental dancing.
    A new dimension to the life of a garden!

  12. I would love to go to a wassailing! Drinking, singing, banging pots and pans = a good time. Lucky you!!!

  13. what a lovely post. thanks for the links. yea for bonfires!

  14. How fabulous! No speakers (propagator plugged in their slot) so will have to wait to listen to the clips, but sounds a wonderful experience. I've never been wassailing, I think I need to rectify that next year, though I like Lia's idea of doing a local one, maybe up at the community orchard...

  15. I always wondered what the heck wassailing was all about and was too lazy to look it up myself. Thanks for the history, it's intriguing.

  16. What an interesting post. I think we will have our own Wassailing ceremony for our apple trees next year. Our Little Garden Helpers would love it, I have already made a note of the date in my diary for next year!

  17. Lia - hope you're feeling better. I was away on Monday so didn't get up to the allotment to wassail my own trees. I must do that this weekend :)

    Cinj - I bet somewhere the wassailing tradition's there or some derivation of it!

    Camillap - I saw that one advertised. I t sounds like you had a fab time - I like the idea of samba drummers :)

    Ewa - what kind of seeds are you looking for? Flowers, herbs, veg, organic?

    Hermes - I was reading about that yesterday, it's going to be not far from where we are. I must investigate a bit more

    Damo - do go - I think you andyour family would enjoy it :)

    SteveC - Wassail! I've sampled the Barrington Court brew - it's rather good :)

    Mark - yep it's the change from the 2 calendars. 11 days was 'lost' and there were protests on the streets about it at the time!

    Gardeningbren - thanks. We're encouraged not to use them and I was surprised how many were in evidence when I looked at the video again. Chris is great!

    Jodi - tree whacking sometimes happens here too and definitely much imbibing of screech!

    Robert - I've very rarely visited a garden in the dark. We definitely need more opportunities to do so!

    Carrie - perhaps you could have one round your apple trees on your allotment. Something to look forward to in January?

    Petoskystone - thanks :)

    Plantaliscious - definitely worth doing at your community orchard :)

    Carolyn - welcome! Glad you enjoyed it :)

    Garden Mum - hello! Have a fab time and be sure to tell us all about it :)


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