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06 January 2022 13:51

Twelth night tradition


Wassatt? No, not what is that! But yes! What is 'wassailing?

Have you ever heard of the old Pagan tradition, originally performed on 12th night, of Wassailing? 

Practised for centuries throughout Britain on Twelfth Night,  the act of Wassailing occurs around two weeks after the Winter Solstice, which is normally around the 21st December. Festivities of merriment and joy would commence during these dark weeks, culminating in a tradition of 'Wassailing,' to end the midwinter season. Taking place around the 5th or 6th January each year, the word is believed to originate from the Old English derivation of 'waes' and 'hael,' meaning to 'be healthy' or 'good health.' The Pagan custom would see people of the land, gathering sticks, shotguns, drums, in actual fact anything with which they could make some noise, and head off to visit their local orchards. A wassail bowl, filled to the brim with an alcoholic brew of spiced apple juice or  cider, would be carried along with them and on arrival at the most honourable and prolific tree, singing would commence towards the top of the trees, in order to ward off any evil and to welcome in the good spirits, in an attempt to encourage healthy growth and a fine yield for the next season of fruit.  Rhymes, chants and songs could be heard and were sung to wake up the tree from its winter slumber, to ensure the tree and the sap would awaken and start the process of growing for another year.  The base and trunk of the tree would be bashed with the implements brought with them and gun shots fired into the branches, to encourage the tree to wake up! After much merriment  and enjoyment, bread, soaked in the brew from the wassail bowl, would be placed in the branches as an offering to the spirits for the fruit to grow and for a good year to come. In Sussex, it is said that a small boy would be placed in the branches of the tree, and he would also receive offerings of bread, cheese and cider to represent gifts to the tree spirits. Any left over brew would then be shared amongst the revellers and any remainder after that, sloshed onto the base of the tree...

These two songs are still sung today and originate from Devon:

Health to thee, good apple tree,
Well to bear pocket fulls, hat fulls,
Peck fulls, bushel bag fulls

Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel - bushel - sacks full
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

A Sussex version of this ceremony, often referred to as 'Howling,' was performed and the following saying chanted by the wassailers:

Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray God send us a good howling crop
Every twig, apples big
Every bough, apples enow.
Hats full, caps full, full quarter sacks full
Holla boys holla!

A lovely blessing originating from Somerset, was performed to welcome good growth in the coming season:

Good luck to the hoof and horn
Good luck to the flock and fleece
Good luck to the growers of corn
With blessings of plenty and peace


Enough said. I'm off to find an apple tree, a stick and a large bowl of spiced cider...

Happy Wassailing!