All things Green Man & Jack-in-the-Green

Wassailing the Apple Trees

Apple Tree Man © Andy Paciorek

I have reproduced COTGM member Bruce Eaton’s brilliant post on Wassailing the Apple Trees from January 2009 below. For those interested in attending an event Wassailing the Apple Trees will take place in many locations throughout the UK in January 2011. I would like to thank Andy Paciorek for the fantastic Apple Tree Man picture above. You can see more of Andy’s work at: http://www.batcow.co.uk/strangelands

In Carhampton, Somerset Wassailing will take place on Saturday 15th January 2011 (The Saturday nearest to the Old Twelfth Night 17th January). Wassailing will also take place in Brent Knoll at West Croft Cider on the same day.

At Carhampton the wassail celebration takes place in the old orchard behind the Butcher’s Arms, the villagers form a circle around the largest apple tree, hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the ‘good spirits’ of the tree. A shotgun is fired overhead to scare away evil spirits (seen by some as worms and maggots) Four wassailing veterans then line up near the apple trees and launch into a series of wonderful folk songs about cider, some adapted from traditional songs with the lyrics adapted to give them a cider theme! Then brandishing their traditional cider crocks, they sing the Carhampton Wassailing Song:

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
For to bear well, and to bloom well
So merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout to the old apple tree!
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagsful
And a little heap under the stairs,
Hip, Hip, Hooray!

The last three lines are repeated and the whole crowd join in the chant. When the singing is over and cups empty, people retire inside to listen to a local folkband.

Feel free to add to this post if you have your own Wassailing event for 2011.

So here is Bruce’s article, after which I have reproduced a few more wassailing songs:

The ancient tradition of ‘Wassailing’ the apple trees on the 17th January (Old Twelfth Night) is particularly associated with Somerset and the South West of England, and is one of a number of folk customs termed ‘Wassailing’.  In this instance the aim of the wassail is threefold, to drive evil spirits out of the orchard, to invite the good spirits in and to wake the apple trees up from their winter slumber.  It is also a time to drink copious amounts of scrumpy cider and have a pig roast and a bonfire.

The evil spirits are dealt with easily enough by banging on pots and pans, blowing whistles and maybe firing off a shotgun or two.  This accomplished the wassilers now sing to the apple trees to wake them up.  There are many traditional wassailing songs and different localities have there own versions.  The song below is sung each year at the Butchers Arms pub in Carhampton, Somerset, where they claim to have the oldest continuous apple tree wassail in the country, and is a fairly typical example.

Old apple tree, we wassail thee
And hope that you wilt bear
For the Gods doth know where we shall be
Come apples another year

To bloom well and to bear well
So merry let us be
Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to the old apple tree

Old apple tree, we wassail thee
And hope that you will bear
Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stair

Three cheers for the old apple tree:
Hip, hip, hooray
Hip, hip, hooray
Hip, hip, hooray

Obviously the ‘little heap under the stair’ is more cider brewing.  In some ceremonies the trunk of the tree is knocked on hard with a stick to help wake the tree.  This may also have the beneficial effect of dislodging harmful insects.  Finally the good spirit of the orchard is invited in.  The good spirit is not, however, represented by our old friend the Green Man, but rather by the robin.  Toast soaked in cider is hung amongst the branches of the trees as an offering to the birds.  The robins are also very good at hoovering up any parasitic insects that were dislodged the previous night.

Wassailing the apple trees as a custom very nearly died out in the late 20th century, but clung on in Carhampton and a handful of orchards across Somerset.  In recent years, however, there has been something of a Renaissance in these folk customs and wassails have been cropping up right across the West Country and even further a field.  But what is the antiquity of this custom?  The term wassail is derived from two Old English components, namely ‘waes’ and ‘hael’, meaning literally ‘good health’.  The traditional reply to this ancient toast was supposed to be ‘drinc hael!’ and is first recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain written c.1140.  Some authors dispute this and see ‘waes hael – drinc hael’ as a 12th century confection rather than a genuine Anglo-Saxon toast. In The English Year (2006) Steve Roud looks at the linguistic evidence.

‘Wassail as a general salutation existed in Old Norse as well as in Old English, but the use of the word as a drinking toast is not found in any of the Teutonic languages, and appears to be a peculiarly English formation from the Eleventh or Twelfth century… Later use of the word, in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, show that it had undergone a considerable extension of meaning, with wassail meaning a party, or the drink that was enjoyed there, or the words said when drinking, or even the songs that were sung.’

(Roud p.556)

This is no doubt the reason that we have a plethora of folk customs all termed ‘Wassailing’ and is why we cannot trace the antiquity of wassailing the apple trees through etymology.  My personal feeling is that the ceremony pre-dates the name given to it and I strongly suspect pre-Christian and possibly pre-English roots.* And where is my evidence to support this claim?  Well that, like the origin of the Green Man, is proving rather elusive.

[1][*] The expansion of the English kingdom of Wessex into the territory of Dumnonia, a British kingdom which encompassed south Somerset, Devon and Dorset, only happened late in the 7th century, by which time Wessex had officially converted to Christianity.

And here are another two Wassailing songs:

Gloucestershire Wassail (Traditional)

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

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
A good Christmas pie that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

So here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as e’er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Colly and to her long tail
Pray God send our master he never may fail
A bowl of strong beer! I pray you draw near
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

 

Gower Wassail (Traditional / Phil Tanner)

A-wassail, a-wassail, throughout all this town.
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our wassail is made of the good ale and cake,.
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best we could get.

Al di dal – al di dal di dal
Al di dal di dal – al di dal di dee
Al de deral – al de derry
Sing too rel I do

Our wassail is made of an elderberry bough.
Although my good neighbour, we’ll drink unto thou..
Besides all on earth, we’ll have apples in store,
Pray let us come in for it’s cold by the door.

We know by the moon that we are not too soon,.
And we know by the sky that we are not too high,.
We know by the star that we are not too far,.
And we know by the ground that we are within sound.

Now master and mistress if you are within
Pray send out your maid with her lily-white skin
For to open the door without more delay
Our time it is precious and we cannot stay

Here’s a health to our Colley and her croo’ed horn
May God send her Master a good crop of corn
Of barley and wheat and all sorts of grain
May God send her Mistress a long life to reign

Now master and mistress – thanks to you we’ll give
And for our jolly wassail as long as we live
And if we should live til another new year
Perhaps we may call and see who do live here

5 responses

  1. I have a wassailing song in my head from an old somerset man I heard on the radio in the 1990’s –

    Wassail the trees so’s they may bare
    Many an apple and many a pair
    So’s they may grow
    and they may bow
    and they by bring us apples eno’

    (Also – sure you know, but check out Robin Hood – or Wood – as a green man figure…)

    December 30, 2010 at 11:59 pm

  2. Bruce

    Somerset Wassail Song

    Wassail! and wassail… all over the town
    The cup it is white and the ale it is brown
    The cup it is made of good ashen tree
    And so is the malt of the best barley

    (Chorus)
    For it’s your wassail! and it’s our wassail!
    And it’s joy be to you and a jolly wassail!

    O master and missus, are you within?
    Pray open the door and let us come in
    O master and missus, a-sitting by the fire
    Pray think upon poor travellers a travelling in the mire
    (Ch)

    O where is the maid with the silver headed pin
    To open the door and let us come in?
    O master and missus it is our desire
    To have a loaf and cheese and a toast by the fire
    (Ch)

    There was an old man and he had an old cow
    And how for to keep her he didn’t know how
    He build up a barn for to keep her warm
    And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm
    No harm, boys, harm; no harm, boys, harm
    And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm

    The girt dog of Langport he burnt his long tail
    And this is the night we go singing wassail!
    O master and missus now we must be gone
    God bless all in this house till we do come again
    (Ch)

    I like the traditional ‘extortion with menace’ tone of this one. I’ve read that the ‘girt dog of Langport’ is supposedly King Guthrum who’s Danish army was defeated by King Alfred and who was then baptised down the road at Aller, but I don’t know how true this claim is.

    Wassail!

    Bruce

    January 10, 2011 at 10:07 am

  3. Fantastic, Many thanks Bruce!

    January 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm

  4. You might be interested in a website especially about apple tree wassails at

    http://pierce.yolasite.com/applewassail

    It gives some more information and some references and sources for the songs.

    slag310

    January 10, 2011 at 11:29 pm

  5. Great website, many thanks

    January 12, 2011 at 7:01 pm

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