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Wassailing: ritual and revelry

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Image of Sally-Anne Huxtable
Sally-Anne HuxtableHead curator, National Trust
Pieces of toast soaked in cider tied to the branches of an apple tree after Wassailing at Saddlecombe Farm, West Sussex
Slices of toast soaked in cider are tied to the branches of an apple tree after Wassailing at Saddlecombe Farm, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/Laurence Perry

Wassailing is a Twelfth Night tradition, with pagan roots, practised in Britain for centuries. Rituals include a sip from a communal wassail bowl filled with warm spiced cider, perry or ale. The National Trust's Head Curator Sally-Anne Huxtable looks closely at the tradition and shows how a 17th-century wooden bowl embodies a host of different practices and beliefs – from the ancient and the pagan, to the Christian and the modern.

What is wassailing?

The purpose is to encourage the spirits into ensuring a good harvest the following season. It takes place on the twelfth night after Christmas and involves a visit to a nearby orchard for singing, dancing, drinking and general merrymaking.

The joys of Christmas past

In contemporary Britain, we’re accustomed to the festive season beginning in early December and ending on New Year’s Day. It’s so ingrained in our cultural calendar, that it’s easy to forget that Christmas once looked very different before the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The popular carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ and Shakespeare’s play 'Twelfth Night' are two cultural survivors offering clues to some of the ways people celebrated Christmas in the past. Advent, a time of fasting, was observed from the 1st to the 24th of December. Christmas would then last 12 days, ending with feasting and revels on the 5th of January – the eve of Epiphany in the Christian calendar – with wassailing a key part of the celebrations.

Hullabaloo in the orchard

Historically, wassailing took many different forms, depending on local tradition. Revellers typically visited local orchards and fruit trees, sang songs, made a hullabaloo (often by banging pots and pans) and were rewarded by the orchard’s grateful owner with some form of warm, spiced alcoholic drink from a communal wassail bowl or cup. Sometimes a topping of apple, known as ‘lamb's wool’, would be added.

A person dressed up as a horse leading a band of merrymakers with instruments and colourful costumes
A wassailing procession at Cotehele, Cornwall | © National Trust Images/Mel Peters

Why wassail?

The intention was to ward off bad spirits from the orchards whilst also pleasing the spirits of the fruit trees, to ensure a bountiful crop of fruit in the year ahead. The noisy banishing of spirits seems to bear a close relationship to the rural folk custom of Charivari, or skimmington ride, in which a wrongdoer would be shamed by a large group of people parading around their house, making loud and discordant music.

Another form the wassailing tradition took involved groups of revellers going from house to house to drink toasts and wish good health for the year ahead on the dwellers within. Indeed, the word ‘wassail’ is believed to be derived from the Old English ‘was hál’, meaning ‘be hale’ or ‘good health’.

Modern wassailing

Wassailing is still a Twelfth Night tradition practised throughout Britain in areas where fruit orchards – particularly apple and pear – are grown. A wassail procession makes a din through the orchards in many of the orchards we care for every year.

Wassailing in song

The two best-known wassailing songs are ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail Song’ (Wassail! Wassail, all over the town, our toast it is white and our ale it is brown’), and ‘The Wassailer’s Carol’ (‘Here we come a-Wassailing among the leaves so green’). Both songs are widely recorded today and are central to the traditional English folk music and, in 1992, the English band Blur recorded ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail Song’ as ‘The Wassailing Song’.

Wassail bowls: from suppression to resurgence

Christmas and its associated celebrations were prohibited under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan rule, but the 1660 Restoration marked a resurgence of festive celebrations. As a result, many wassail bowls and cups that survive today date from the final four decades of the 17th century, when ‘old world’ trappings came back into fashion.

A pair of brown wooden wassail bowls
Wassail bowls made from lignum vitae wood | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

At Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire there is a particularly fine Restoration example. It’s made from Lignum vitae (literally ‘tree of life’), which originates in the Caribbean and northern coasts of South America. The wood’s colour ranges from a dark greenish brown to almost black, sometimes with a reddish hue. It’s the national tree of the Bahamas and the national flower of Jamaica.

Early wassailing bowls

The first wassail bowls and cups made from Lignum vitae appear to have been made in Britain in the second quarter of the 17th century. The use of this material seems closely related the huge expansion of Britain’s colonial power and trade during that century.

Lignum vitae is the hardest and heaviest of commercial woods. Because of its toughness it was particularly suited for holding hot liquids.

In a world where many of us live lives that are, for the most part, divorced from the land that sustains us, it always pays to be reminded that we are still subject to the vagaries of nature and its cycles. Wassailing reminds us of the ways people in Britain have looked to the land to see that good health, good community relations and good harvest are maintained in the year ahead.

A group of Delftware urns at Dyrham Park, Bristol and Bath

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