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.
– Traditional wassail song
There is a great deal to honor about orchards. These abundant spaces have inspired painters and poets, folklore passed down through the ages, and provided recipes for both cooking and distillation. We toast to the fruit, the blossom, the wonderful wildlife within, the potent cider and thirst-quenching juice; all of which elevate the orchard to a unique place that unites both nature and culture.
Celebrations themselves can form the basis for local action; fostering feelings of connection and respect – reinforcing community ties which help protect and add value to an orchard.
The most famous of these celebrations in modern times is undoubtedly Apple Day, which began in Convent Garden in 1990 (and has gone from strength to strength), but there is another, far older form of veneration for our wonderful fruit trees – the wassail.
The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Old English ‘waes haeil’ meaning ‘be healthy’ or ‘be whole’ and both meanings live on in the modern English phrase ‘hale and hearty’. These old words were first spoken as a simple greeting or salute by the Anglo-Saxons but the later, Danish-speaking inhabitants of England seem to have turned the hail and its reply ‘drink hail’ into a drinking code that has since been widely adopted by the people of England. Origins such as these indicate that wassailing, at the very least, pre-dates the Norman conquest of 1066.
The tradition of wassailing seems to originate, and has certainly been sustained, by the cider producing counties such as Devon, Somerset and Herefordshire. The custom seems to be less deep-seated in local practice within Kent where, although known as the ‘garden of England’, most fruits were grown for the table. In the other counties previously mentioned, the crop was traditionally of apple varieties too acidic for eating and therefore suitable for cider. Thus wassailing is and was most ubiquitous in the ancient cider and perry orchards of the west country.
However, wassailing was not necessarily always the exclusive practice of rural communities. There are historical records of a wassail carried out in the king’s court during the reign of Henry VII (1485-1507).
There is some degree of dispute on which is the correct date to wassail – some celebrate on Twelfth Night (January 5th or 6th) but many choose Old Twelvey Night, January 17th, as it would have been before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
Ceremonies tend to vary from region to region but usually share the same core elements – After dark those taking part make their way down to the local orchard and gather around the largest or most venerable tree (known as the ‘Apple Tree Man’) carrying items that can make a lot of noise.
An old folktale from Somerset reflects this custom and describes the ‘Apple Tree Man’ who is the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and within whom the fertility of the orchard is believed to reside. A local man offers his last mug of cider to the trees of the orchard and is rewarded by the spirit who reveals the location of some buried treasure.
Elements of this story remain in the modern wassail when the roots of the chosen tree are doused in cider and bread (historically the mainstay of ordinary folks’ diet) is placed in the branches as an offering to the robins. The lowest branches are also sometimes dipped in cider as the revelers sing a toast to the tree. A wassail king and queen often lead the song accompanied by the shouting and banging of pots and pans and alternating with speeches in praise of the tree’s fruitfulness. The ceremony concludes when those with guns give off a great volley to ensure the work is good and done. This ceremony then, is one that seeks to stir life in the orchard and help it arise from winter slumber that it might better thrive and produce a bounteous crop next season.
As many of you know, our orchard over at Tregew is still very much in it’s infancy but, with many trees being planted over the couple of months, maybe we will give it a good start with a wassail in future years!
– The National Trust ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford
– Illustrations by Sonia Hensler