Ritual and revelry, the story of wassailing

Sally-Anne Huxtable, Head Curator Sally-Anne Huxtable Head Curator

Wassailing is a Twelfth Night tradition that has been practised in Britain for centuries. It has its roots in a pagan custom of visiting orchards to sing to the trees and spirits in the hope of ensuring a good harvest the following season. During the visit a communal wassail bowl – filled with a warm spiced cider, perry or ale – would be shared amongst revellers.

The National Trust's Head Curator Sally-Anne Huxtable takes a closer look at the tradition of wassailing 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.

The joys of Christmas past

In contemporary Britain, we are accustomed to the festive season commencing in early December and ending on New Year’s Day. So ingrained is this in our cultural calendar, it is easy to forget that Christmas once looked very different prior to the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th centuries.

'Christmas. The Wassail Bowl' by Thomas Hollis after R.W. Buss. The wassail bowl is the centrepiece of this 1851 engraving of merriment and revelry
Engraving 'Christmas. The Wassail Bowl'
'Christmas. The Wassail Bowl' by Thomas Hollis after R.W. Buss. The wassail bowl is the centrepiece of this 1851 engraving of merriment and revelry

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 twelve 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 beverage from a communal wassail bowl or cup. Sometimes a topping of apple, known as ‘lamb's wool’, would be added.

The intention was to ward off bad spirits from the orchards whilst also pleasing the spirits of the fruit trees, all in order to ensure a bountiful crop of fruit in the year ahead.

Wassail procession at Cotehele, Cornwall

Modern revelry

Wassailing was, and still is, a Twelfth Night tradition practised throughout Britain in areas where fruit orchards, particularly apple and pear, are traditionally part of the agricultural landscape. Here, a wassail procession makes a din through the orchards at Cotehele, Cornwall.

Perry and pears at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire

Perry pears

Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire has a long history of growing perry pears in Nichols' orchard. In recent years, the tradition of Wassailing around Twelfth Night has been revived, and in late September the resulting bountiful crop is then harvested and pressed during a weekend of events open to all.

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. 

" The word ‘wassail’ is believed to be derived from the Old English ‘was hál’, meaning ‘be hale’ or ‘good health’"
- Sally-Anne Huxtable

As well as encouraging an abundant harvest from apple, pear and other fruiting trees, the tradition of wassailing could also take another form, with 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’.  

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.

At Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire there is a particularly fine Restoration example (below). It’s made from Lignum vitae (literally ‘tree of life’), a tree originating 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, while the tree produces gorgeous blue flowers. It’s the national tree of the Bahamas and the national flower of Jamaica.

Wassail bowl and cover with acorn finial, Lignum vitae, 1660–1685, on show in the East Hall at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire
Wassail bowl and cover with acorn finial
Wassail bowl and cover with acorn finial, Lignum vitae, 1660–1685, on show in the East Hall at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire

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. It was traditionally used in shipbuilding and making police truncheons and bowling balls. Because of its toughness it was particularly suited for holding hot liquids.

Traditionally, Lignum vitae also boasts medicinal properties and was imported to Europe from the 16th century as a remedy for a range of ailments, from gout to syphillis. Although some surviving wassail bowls are ceramic or made from maple wood, one can see how the idea of drinking from a bowl or cup made from a material that promised good health for the year ahead would have been especially appealing during the centuries when life expectancy was lower than today, and health care for all but the wealthy was reliant on traditional remedies.

Wassailing in song

There are many wassailing songs in Britain, but the two best known songs associated with the tradition today 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 regarded as central to the traditional folk music of England, and in 1992 the English band Blur recorded ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail Song’ as ‘The Wassailing Song’.

A recent wassailing event held in the orchard at Saltram, Devon
A fire in the orchard
A recent wassailing event held in the orchard at Saltram, Devon

A connection to land

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.

Related objects in our collections

Morris Dancers and a violinist at Barrington Court

Join in with the annual wassail 

Come and join us for a wassail to bring in a good harvest when the season comes. Learn more about how we celebrate this ancient tradition and connect with nature around you at a wassail event near you.