All Things Green Man & The Traditional Jack-in-the-Green

Posts tagged “Wassailing


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:




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:


Posted by Leslie Melville


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.