Wassail! The pagan origins of a Yuletide cider festival

A Wassail ceremony in an orchard // Photo by Bill Bradshaw, @iamcider

A Wassail ceremony in an orchard // Photo by Bill Bradshaw, @iamcider

Reprinted with permission from “Ciderology” by Gabe Cook, Spruce 2018

If you happen to be in the West of England during January, you might catch sight and sound of some rather unexpected activities. Some rather pagan activities. For one month a year, an area famed for its tranquility and gentle nature packs away the tea and cucumber sandwiches and reaches instead for the shotguns and flaming torches.

Wassailing is one of those wonderful British traditions that has just about managed to hang on into the 21st century. Despite modern health and safety regulations, it sits alongside cheese-rolling, shin-kicking, bog-snorkelling and burning-barrel racing as a relic of a bygone age. But in these digitally disparate, hyper-connected, lightning-speed times, there is something exceedingly comforting about gadding about in a muddy orchard in the freezing cold, participating in an event that has old, old roots.

Still critical to the cider-making calendar of the UK, wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night, the pagan New Year’s Eve, commonly held to be 6 January. In the deepest and darkest parts of the cider world, though, it happens on 17 January, also known as “Old Twelvey”—the true pagan New Year. Twelfth Night has only been celebrated on 6 January since 1752, when Britain controversially moved over to the Gregorian calendar, sparking riots among those who objected to the apparent loss of 11 days.

The term “wassail” can trace its origins to pre-Christian Britain. Anglo-Saxon tradition included a New Year celebration in the halls of the Lord of the Manor, including a mighty feast with a giant bowl of a sort of punch: a mix of cider, ale and mead infused with bountiful spices and crab apples. The Lord would toast those present with the cry of waes hael, meaning “be whole” or “good health”, and the hearty response would be drink hael (I think you can guess what that means).

The idea of wassailing—blessing, toasting, sharing and giving thanks during the Yuletide period—has continued through the centuries. The Victorians seized on its spirit of generosity by endorsing the concept of wassailing from door to door—poorer folk singing songs in return for charitable gifts, rather than begging. This soon morphed into the ever-popular Christmas carolling. And, of course, the much enjoyed winter warmer, mulled cider (often known as wassail and a far more palatable spiced drink than its vinous cousin, IMHO), is a direct descendent of the original spiced cider punch drunk all those centuries back.

But it’s in the orchard that the wassail has really retained its significance and mythical status. The earliest accounts of wassailing fruit trees come from the East of England—in St Albans in 1486 and Kent in 1585. But it isn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that the wassail truly comes to prominence.

A Wassail ceremony in an orchard // Photo by Bill Bradshaw, @iamcider

A Wassail ceremony in an orchard // Photo by Bill Bradshaw, @iamcider

Every region, village and farm would have had its own version of the ceremony, with unique traditions, symbols and rituals. Wassails from the Welsh Marches (the border country between England and Wales) may be quite different from those further southwest. But generally speaking the event begins with a torch-lit procession around the cider orchard, with revellers crashing pots and pans to scare off insidious forces, often led by a Wassail King and Queen (think Pearly Kings and Queens but with more vegetative adornments and West Country accents). The Master of Ceremony, a figure regaled in black, is called the Butler, and he or she calls the congregation to gather around the largest tree in the orchard, which has 12 small bonfires placed around it, representing the 12 zodiac signs or 12 apostles. In Herefordshire, there is a 13th bonfire within the circle, which upon lighting is promptly extinguished underfoot. The reason? It is known as the Judas Fire and shalt not be allowed to burn its treacherous flame (or something like that!).

The Butler leads the crowd in singing songs appealing to Pomona, the apple goddess, for a healthy harvest. The smallest boy in the crowd, known as the Tom Tit, is then hoisted up high and places cider-soaked bread into the branches of the apple tree—a signifier of good luck. Just to make sure that any malevolent forces have been fully banished, shotguns are fired to rid these lands of them. And finally, a bowl of cider is passed around from person to person, with “wassail” being proffered and “drinkhail” offered in return: “good health” and “cheers.” It’s basically The Wicker Man, but with cider.

The one common denominator of these myriad customs, however, and the true spirit of wassail, is the opportunity for everyone in the community to get together and to give thanks, to share and celebrate these traditions that are such a key part of the landscapes and cultures of cider making regions. In these fast-paced times, it’s great to slow down a bit with a night out in the orchards, singing the songs of generations before and harking back to a simpler age. Although the cider is probably tastier these days.

The Campaign for the Revival Of Wassailing (CROW) is a group of professional miscreants from Gloucestershire who are passionate about this tradition. These folk eloquently describe why the wassail is the tonic for our times:

It creates an atmosphere where we can make amends, end hostilities, forgive insults, heal wounds and let bygones be bygones. It creates an atmosphere where we can make new friends, especially between the old and young and between the sexes. It creates a better working relationship and feelings of unity, of all being as one.

I’ll toast to that. Pomona knows, the world could do with a little more of this right now.

Global Wassail

Although the wassail is essentially an English tradition, as the popularity of cider grows, so does the interest in interpreting these old customs in new parts of the world.

In Tasmania, Australia, award-winning cider maker Willie Smith’s hosts a huge, annual midwinter festival, full of pagan goodness and with a West Country-inspired wassail at the heart of the event.

Back in 2014, a small settlement at the top of New Zealand’s South Island saw its very own wassail, led by yours truly. We lived in a home with modest insulation, a wood burner, an electric heater and no central heating. In NZ that’s called a warm house. In the cosmopolitan metropolis of Neudorf Road, Upper Moutere (population 13—and a few pukekos), you need to find ways to entertain yourself when it’s cold and dark.

This is especially important as Christmas is in the height of summer in the southern hemisphere, meaning there is no midwinter celebration. Now, being a self-respecting British man, there was no way I was going to go a whole winter without creating some spurious reason to eat bowel-bloatingly enormous portions of food and consume an ill-advised quantity of booze. Therefore, along with our European friends and their friends, we decided to stage our own Christmas/wassail/midwinter solstice/pagan celebration. And have flaming torches.

So, it came to pass that on a frosty 21 June, a multi-national contingent (three Brits, two Germans, one Swiss-Belgian, one French guy and a Japanese dude) descended on Upper Moutere to wassail the night away. The group included two cheese-makers, a wine maker, a brewer and a former cider maker. So you could say that we ate and drank well. In fact (hyperbole alert), we think there was no group of people in the whole of New Zealand that evening consuming such locally sourced, fresh and tasty produce. It was lush.

We lit the flaming torches and headed into the paddock next to our house to seek out the little apple trees tucked in the corner. We sang to the trees, placed cider-soaked bread onto the branches and shared cider from the hand-carved wassail bowl that had been shipped over from the UK. Was this the first wassail ever in NZ? I reckon so, but even if it wasn’t, it was pretty good fun.

As a perfect reflection of the intertwining cultures that this area of NZ seems to cultivate, Yas, the Japanese guy, made up and played a song on his traditional, hand-made Moroccan sintir about this old, English tradition. It was simply called “Wasssssssaaaaayyyyooooooo.” Amazing.

This is an excerpt from “Ciderology: From History and Heritage to the Craft Cider Revolution,” a new book on cider by Gabe Cook.