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

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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


The Apple Tree Man

A Carol arranged by Lynn Noel (From a traditional Somerset tale)

In Somerset there lived two sons of a farmer who passed away
The elder son was vain and mean, the younger merry and gay
The elder son was left the farm, to his brother naught gave he
Save a tiny plot with a feeble ox, a donkey and apple tree.

(chorus) Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee and hoping thou wilt bear
The Lord doth know where we shall be to be merry another year
To blow well and to bear well and so merry let us be
Let everyone drink up a cup, here’s health to the old apple tree.

Good husbandman was the younger son, he tended the ox and ass
He patched their stable walls and roof and he led them to sweet grass
And he poured the cider round about and a wassail song sang he
To the spirit guard of the orchard wood, the Man of the Apple Tree.

(insert chorus after every first, second or third verse as audience & time permit)

On Christmas Eve the rent from him his brother did demand
And at midnight the elder should summon him to where treasure lay on the land
To the farmer spoke the Apple Tree Man in a voice so rich and rare
“Go dig beneath the apple tree, the treasure awaits you there.”

The younger son went to the tree and he dug as he was told
And there beneath the roots he found a wooden chest heavy with gold.
Hide it away, it now is yours,” said the voice from out the tree
“And your brother call to the stable door as he bids you, merrily.”

The elder son came silently, to the stable door did creep
And the ox and ass, as was foretold, of the treasure they did speak.
“He thinks to learn, the greedy fool, where the treasure lies from me,”
Said the ox and then the ass replied, “Twas taken long since from the tree.”

The Apple Tree Man spoke not a word as he stood in the orchard good
But shook with mirth and an apple rolled to his feet where the farmer stood.
So the greedy son he went without while the wise one prospered free
And each Christmastide for all his days he wassailed the Apple Tree. (chorus)

Merry Yuletide to all members of  The Company of the Green Man

WASSAIL!


THE APPLE-TREE MAN

Here is a story that Taffy Thomas M.B.E. (The Lakeland Storyteller) often tells in the Storyteller’s Garden in Grasmere at Christmas time. Following the tale, the song is sung, similar to the one posted below by Bruce, and mulled cider is passed around the assembled company in a Wassail Cup.
 

Taffy originally hails from Somerset and he tells the tale in dialect:

 

THE APPLE-TREE MAN

 

There was this hard-working chap that was eldest of a long family, see, so when his dad died there wasn’t anything left for him. Youngest gets it all, and he gave bits and pieces to all his kith; but he don’t like eldest, see, so all he lets him have is his dad’s old dunk (donkey), and an ox that was gone to anatomy (a skeleton), and a tumbledown cottage with two or three ancient old apple trees where his dad had lived with his grandfer.

 

The chap doesn’t grumble but he goes on cutting grass along the lane, and the old dunk began to fatten, and he rubs the ox with herbs and says the old words, and the old ox he perks himself up walks smart, and then he turns his beasts into the orchard, and those old apple trees begin to flourish a marvel.

 

But all this work doesn’t leave him time to find the rent. Oh yes, the youngest has to have his rent. Dap on the dot too!

 

Then one day the youngest comes into the orchard and says, “Twill be Christmas Eve come tomorrow, when beasts do talk. There’s a treasure hereabouts we’ve all heard tell, and I’m set to ask your dunk where it is. He mustn’t refuse to tell me. You wake me just afore midnight and I’ll take a whole sixpence off the rent.”

 

Come Christmas Eve, the chap he gave the old dunk and ox a bit extra and he fixed a bit of holly in the shippen (cattle-shed), and he got his last mug of cider, and mulled it in the ashes, and went out to the orchard to give it to the apple trees.

 

At nightfall, who should come wandering into the orchard but the little cat from down Tib’s Farm. Not much more than kitten, her were, dairymaid of a cat. And you know what they say about curiosity and the cat? Well here she were, wandering about the orchard in the ‘owl-light’ when out popped the Apple-Tree Man! And he said to the cat, “You get on home, my dear! This is no place for you. There’s folks coming tonight to pour cider through my roots and fire guns through my branches. You get on home, and don’t you come back here before St.Tib’s Eve!”

 

Well the little kitten ran off with her tail stiff with fright. Properly scared, she were and she didn’t come back at nightfall, never no more – ’cause she didn’t know when St. Tib’s Eve were!

 

When the older brother came, the Apple-Tree Man was a-waiting for him and he calls to the chap and he says, “You take a look under this great diddicky root of ours. You’ll find a chest full of the finest gold. ‘Tis yours and no one else’s”, he says. “Put it away safe and bide quiet about it”. So the chap did that. “Now you can go and call your brother”, says the Apple-Tree Man, “’Tis midnight.”

 

Well, the the youngest brother he ran out in a terrible hurry-push and sure enough the dunk’s a-talking to the ox. “You know this great greedy fool that’s a-listening to us, so unmannerly, he wants us to tell him where the treasure is hid to’” “And that’s where he won’t ever get it”, said the ox, “’cause someone has taken it already!”

 

You can hear Taffy telling this story on his CD “Tell Someone a Story for Christmas”. Check it out here:   http://www.taffythomas.co.uk/frame1.html

 

Posted by Leslie Melville www.thestorytelling-resource-centre.com