On the bitter cold and frost of a January night, with the stars sparkling overhead in a clear sky, small groups of people, muffled against the chill, process down darkened paths into orchards or to lone apple and pear trees. Some may process in silence, others with as much noise as they can muster. Some may carry torches or burning brands, others drums and shotguns or pots and pans. In each case, one of their number will be carrying a vessel filled with a steaming brew of cider, carefully trying not to spill it, the steam from the bowl mingling with the cloudy breath of the participants ......
This is the popular image of the traditional folk custom of wassailing fruit trees - a ceremony intended to begin the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and the first fertility festival of the folk calendar. The word wassail derives from the Old English words wæs (þu) hæl which means variously "be healthy" or "be whole" - both of which meanings survive in the modern English phrase "hale and hearty". Thus this is a traditional ceremony which seeks to start off the first stirrings of life in the land and to help it emerge from winter and to ensure that the next season’s crop of fruit, especially apples and pears, will be bountiful.
The most common date for this custom to take place is the eve of Twelfth Night or Old Christmas Eve, ie 5th January, just at the end of the midwinter period when the Wild Hunt rides and chaos traditionally rules as the otherworldly horde broke through into human realms.
In some cases, however, the ceremony takes places a little later, on 17th January, depending on whether the celebrants prefer to follow the old or new calendar.
We might see this first fertility ceremony of the year as marking a return to human "normality" after the dark and dangerous days of midwinter.
For reasons of tradition, orchard wassailing is concentrated in those parts of England where the growing of hard (orchard) fruit is concentrated.
The wassailing ceremony frequently begins just before dark when the wassailing cup (or drink) is prepared.
After dark those taking part process down to the orchard, ceremonially bearing the wassail bowl filled with the prepared booze. They also carry large sticks and such items as shotguns, drums, kettles, pans and whistles- anything which can be used to create lots of noise in fact.
The ceremony generally begins with the tree, usually the oldest and most venerable tree in an orchard, being variously serenaded with traditional "wake up" type of chants and rhymes alternating with speeches by the group’s leader in praise of the tree, its fruitfulness in previous years and exhorting it to do even better in the coming year. In Sussex, where wassailing was sometimes called "howling", the following was used:
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!
The custom usually continues with the tree or trees being beaten about the trunk (and any branches within reach) with the sticks. This is believed to begin the process of awakening the tree and starting the sap flowing up the trunk. It is accompanied by much shouting and the making of as much noise as possible, and shotguns are commonly fired up into the branches.
Again, this is believed to assist the tree in awakening from its winter sleep as well as frightening away any evil spirits which might be lurking in the branches.
In Sussex, it was not uncommon for all present to bow to the trees. Finally pieces of toasted bread soaked in the prepared drink are thrust up into forks in the branches or hollows in the tree and left there as offerings, whether to the tree or to the robins. The remainder of the drink is generally sloshed around and over the trunk of the tree, though in some places part of it may also be ceremonially drunk by the participants.there was an allied custom in which men would stand in a circle by the fire, chanting three times the words:
On each of the three syllables they would bow into the circle, making nine bows in all. The first two notes were sung at a normal pitch but the last, the "-der", dropped to a low growl a full octave below the other notes. The effect, was a "weird, dirge-like effect" which one might expect to be profoundly hypnotic if repeated continuously for any period of time and more than likely a damned good invocation of the spirit of cider and the apple tree!
The Lord of Misrule
is one of the lost characters of the riotous Medieval Christmas celebration. Sometime in November, it was customary among the European peasantry to draw lots for the title of Lord of Misrule. Wearing a paper crown and motley garments, the Lord of Misrule turned the ordinary rules on their head for his appointed time. He was given full licence to enjoy whatever pleasures he desired, and to lead the others down the merry path of dalliance and delight. One can only imagine what sorts of delight prevailed but certainly the kind that comes in a flagon must have been especially indulged. The crowning of the Lord of Misrule is a tradition extending back into ancient times, and was a feature of Roman Saturnalia. Records from as late as the 3rd century suggest that the merry reign of the king of the revels came to a rather unjolly end when the chosen one was unceremoniously sacrificed on the altar of Saturn. In the Middle Ages, the tradition was revived in a more moderate form, most sacrificial elements removed or replaced by the less barbarous practice of burning the god in effigy. A remnant of this ancient custom clings to the current practice of pulling Christmas crackers: after the muffled explosion of the cracker, the prizes are generally revealed to be a joke, a charm, and the paper crown of the Lord of Misrule.