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

Posts tagged “cider

Kilmersdon Wassail

Kilmersdon Wassail copyright Bruce Eaton

Many thanks to Bruce Eaton for sending in this photo of the Wassail Queen pouring a libation of cider around an apple tree at Kilmersdon community orchard in Somerset on 15th January this year. He apologises for the quality of the photograph, blaming it on the Cider he felt forced to partake in (for the sake of tradition of course)

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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.