How to Wassail Your Orchard
You don't need many trees or people for a wassail

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 a custom at 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, one was 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 while walking around the 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.

wassailing Tapping the trunk to wake the tree

wassailingAnointing the trunk with cider

wassailing Wassailing musicians after returning to the warm for a drink from the wassail bowl

Cider soaked toast in the branches of an apple tree

A wassail at Maplehurst, West Sussex

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 eating and drink hael going on afterwards. You will need:

  • A Wassail King to co-ordinate the ceremony, could be a Queen, could be a "Green Man", could be a Forest Queen or something else you make up.

  • A Wassail Queen to officiate.

  • An orchard or at least a group of fruit trees (traditionally apple or pear), the wassail takes place around the largest and / or most venerable tree of the orchard, the "King tree".

  • A wassail stick for each person taking part. I cut them down from softwood timber to about 2cm x 2 cm and 60-70 cm long (they'll need some sanding). Almost anything will do, bamboo canes at a pinch, though it's better if they are more solid in order to make a satisfying clunk when knocked together.

  • Some cider or apple juice, at least a pint (traditionally from last years crop from the same orchard).

  • Some toast, about half a dozen slices pre-toasted.

  • Eager participants.

A wassail in St Werburghs Bristol

Cambridge wassails

Wassail Away!

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. This version allows you to still wassail if you don't have any musicians or singers, mix and match if you do.

  • Give the wassailers a stick each as they walk to the tree or when in position around the tree, make sure there is an even number.

  • The Wassail King explains the purpose of the wassail and perhaps some of the history.

  • The Wassail King gives instructions to be followed by the wassailers:

    • If you hear "waes hael" - reply - "drink hael" - a good role for the Wassail Queen.

    • Form a pair with a partner next to you.

    • Hold your stick in your right hand and extend it to the person to the right, take the end of the stick of the person to your left, this forms a circle of person-stick-person-stick etc.

    • Walk (skip, perambulate etc.) to the right while repeating the words of the Wassail King, the King speaks a line and the wassailers repeat it back.

    • Wassail the trees, that they may beare - repeat
      You many a Plum and many a Peare - repeat
      For more or lesse fruits they will bring - repeat
      As you do give them Wassailing - repeat

    • Stand still and let go of the left hand stick, turn to your partner.

    • Hit the sticks together three times high - above shoulder height, clonk, clonk, clonk.

    • Hit the sticks together three times low - below knee height, clonk, clonk, clonk.

    • Each hit the ground three times with the stick, clonk, clonk, clonk.

    • 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.

    • Here's to thee, old apple tree - repeat
      And hoping thou wilt bare - repeat
      Hat fulls - repeat
      Cap fulls - repeat
      Three bushel bag fulls - repeat
      And a little heap under the stairs - repeat
      Hurrah! - repeat
      Hurrah! - repeat

    • Stand still, let go sticks, three hits high, three hits low, three hits on the ground.

    • Each wassailer gently taps three times on the trunk of the tree.

    • Make lots of noise, set off crackers, ring bells, bang tins, bang drums, shout "wassail" etc.

  • The Wassail Queen toasts the tree by throwing a glass of apple juice / cider over the trunk of the tree, she calls - waes hael - wassailers reply - drink hael.

  •  ...and then hangs the slices of toast soaked in juice / cider from the branches, with help, tthis is for the animals, especially robins.

  • 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.

Other Things

  • Make more noise with: A shotgun (yes really), a bell, whistle or anything else you can think of.

  • Costumes: Some wassails take place with Morris dancers in their costumes, other than this use your imagination, something you already have with some additions will probably do or you can go the whole hog and make something very elaborate.

  • The Wassail Bowl: A bowl containing a warm punch (also traditionally made at Christmas) that can be drunk from by all at the wassail. It is good served prior to the event if people are arriving at different times, or afterwards to warm them up after coming in from outside. There are many recipes online, an authentic tree wassail punch would be made with cider (apple juice if non-alcoholic) with fruit and spices.

  • Bonfires: You can't get much more pagan than a bonfire which provides heat and light at the orchard while returning the wood to the ground to fertilise it.

  • Flaming torches: Show where you're going and are very atmospheric (leave the pitchforks at home, vampire hunting is another night).

  • Choose the Wassail Queen by making an apple cake and placing a clove in one piece, whoever gets it is the queen.

  • Plenty of Youtube clips about wassailing to give you ideas.

Pictures credit:Maplehurst wassail - Glyn Baker, used under CC BY-SA-2.0 licence / St Werburghs wassail - Joss Smithson, used under CC BY-SA-2.0 licence /