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Wassailing Traditions

My first awareness of wassailing — from the old Anglo-Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl meaning “Drink and be healthy” — was as an alternative name for door-to-door carolling at Christmas. In exchange for a song, one was given some grog (essentially a mulled wine or cider) from the wassail bowl.

The wassailing revellers were often a bit rowdy too, demanding their treat (grog or a bit of figgy pudding) in exchange for their song. Trickery and minor vandalism was not unknown…. as in the lyrics from one popular wassailing carol “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”:

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; 
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here

But the tradition I love is one that likely has more pagan roots, and found in areas of Britain with cider-making and apple-growing traditions.  People would gather around the apple trees on the eve of Twelfth Night — led by the Wassail King and Queen — and sing to the apple trees (and likely also to plum and pear trees) to pray for their health and for a continued successful harvest. 

Customs included banging pots and pans loudly in the orchard to scare away any demons or devils and sleeping tree spirits (a custom with which I grew up, associated with New Year’s Eve), placing toast soaked in cider onto the tree branches,  and pouring cider or apple juice onto the roots. And likely a fair amount of cider was no doubt drank along with gifting some to the trees! 

Update: I just learned from a herbalist friend that this practice was also a natural pesticide against the coddling moth, known to destroy many a tree. A wonderful bit of Earth Medicine that became a ritual,

Wassailing night has shifted throughout the last few hundred years. Some start on Christmas Eve, others on the Eve of 12th Night of Christmas (January 5 or 6, depending on your traditions), which is also a night with much revelry and mayhem! Some celebrate on ‘Old Twelvy’, or the 17th January, the date corresponding to the original Julian calendar date (this goes back to calendar changes in 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced). IMHO, any time is fine!

So, tonight, bang the drums loudly and have a cup of good cheer… and chase those demons away! 

Solstice Blessings!