hael - Be Well!
Wassailing is an ancient pagan custom that is a combination of evolving local interpretations laid on a loose framework in the best English folkloric tradition. Keep the basics and ad-lib at will.
Wassailing the trees is an old Anglo-Saxon derived tradition well over a thousand years old. It takes place on Twelfth Night, though the more die-hard traditionalists celebrate it on "Old Twelvey Night", the 17th of January which was twelfth night before the new fangled Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752.
The name Wassail comes from the beginning of the new Anglo-Saxon year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael – “Be well” to which the reply is drink hael, or “drink well”.
Pre Christianity, there were two versions of wassailing, wassailing the houses, a tradition around the pagan midwinter feast of Yule when groups of poorer people would be given treats at the houses of the better off. This evolved over time into singing Christian Christmas carols, going around houses on Christmas Eve.
The other version of wassailing was wassailing the trees in orchards mainly apple but also pear and other tree fruit. The tradition arose to to wake the fruit trees from their winter slumber to ensure a good harvest in the year to come and scare away evil spirits by making a noise.
Another more prosaic reason was probably to remind people that now the mid-winter feast was over they should be thinking about getting back to work again and the time between New Year and bud-break is the best time to prune and attend to orchard fruit.
Tapping the trunk to wake the tree
Anointing the trunk with cider
Wassailing musicians after returning to the warm for a drink from the wassail bowl
A wassail at Maplehurst,
pictures courtesy Glyn Baker, used under CC BY-SA-2.0 licence
Plan your wassail
Wassailing your trees is a good excuse for a post-Christmas party or just an interesting and curious thing to do.
You can do it with friends and neighbours, a school, youth or other interest group, You can adapt it for any time of day and for any number of people of any ages - what's not to like! You don't necessarily have to have elaborate costumes, singers or musicians. The smallest group I have wassailed with is five others, the biggest about 50.
This is a wassail I assembled from various bits and bobs I have read about, it has been performed in the middle of the day during a lunch-break and also as part of a full-blown wassail feast with fancy dress and much drink hael going on afterwards. You will need:
A wassail in St Werburghs
pictures courtesy Joss Smithson, used under CC BY-SA-2.0 licence
In a traditional wassail there will have likely been more than one local orchard and so the wassailers would have visited each in turn, playing music and singing as they went.
It is more likely that these days there will just be the one venue so choose your starting point and sing and / or play as you approach the King Tree.
Join hands / sticks again and
walk to the left while repeating the words
of the Wassail King, the King speaks
a line and the wassailers repeat it back.
Optional - the Wassail Queen is picked up by two people, one either side holding a leg and shoulder in a sitting position and swung three times into the tree branches and back down.