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

Wassailing the Apple Trees by Bruce Eaton

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.

This article was first published on this blog in January 2009

4 responses

  1. There is a great little video of Ronald Hutton Wassailing here:

    January 11, 2014 at 3:58 pm

  2. Bruce Eaton

    It’s been a fair few years since I wrote that article and, being younger, I suspect that the excitement of the impending cider-geddon of old twelfth night made me come over all a bit James Frazer-like romantic in the last paragraph. Of course all cultures have their fertility rites, all of which have evolved over time, but I would be equally willing to accept that this wassailing custom as we now have it could be as recent as the 18th century. Also, the survival of wassailing apple orchards in the South West does not necessarily mean that it has always been the epicentre for this custom. The survival could be due to the lesser impact of industrialization and urbanization in this part of the country (although there is no denying the good people of Somerset are particularly fond of scrumpy!).

    Not that any of the above really matters. After all if you do something two years on the trot isn’t that then a tradition? What I think makes wassailing important is that in the dank winter it gets people outdoors, encourages them to think about the cycle of the seasons, the approaching spring and the precarious nature of food production and, maybe most importantly of all, gets the whole community together to have some fun.

    It is also heartening to see the number of wassails continue to grow. I attended an absolutely fantastic inaugural wassail at Avebury (Wilts.) last weekend with my kids. They really went for it, combining a noisy procession to wassail the various apple trees in the village with Plough Sunday/Monday traditions (including demanding cider at the manor house and the local vicar blessing the plough), a hobby horse, drummers and a mummers play – my little ‘uns had a brilliant time. And this weekend I’ve been invited to another new wassail in central Somerset. Obviously I’m only going for serious research reasons… WASSAIL!

    January 13, 2014 at 10:47 am

  3. avril Anglo

    The song We’m come up from Somerset, where the cider apples grow etc. The tune and the song can be found on certain pianola rolls very early 1900′s. I am 77 years old but in my day we would get around the piano and it meant a lot of pedaling but it was good fun.The words would be written down the side of the paper rolls. My ancestors came from the Somerset levels 1611 being married at West Monkton. They had farms at upper and lower Clavelsleigh about 500 acres in the hands of Henry Gatchell, Sheriff of the county 17th century.

    February 16, 2014 at 10:08 am

  4. Wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing this with us Avril

    February 16, 2014 at 11:18 am

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