Dec 24, 2015

Posted by in Holidays, Paganism, Yule | 0 Comments

Wassail!

Wassail!
Wassailing the Apple trees on the twelfth nigh...

Wassailing the Apple trees on the twelfth night to ensure a good harvest, a tradition in Maplehurst, West Sussex (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a child, whenever I heard, “Wassail! Wassail! All over the town,” I always had a vision of a crowd of people walking around with slices of toast and mugs of beer, carrying a giant bowl over their heads. Since then, I have learned that wassail is a drink, a form of revelry, and a ceremony. Though I’d be willing to bet that there have been people, under the influence of what was in the wassailing bowl, who have indeed hoisted it over their heads!

Wassail began as warmed mead into which was dropped some roasted crab apples; then it evolved into hard apple cider mulled with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and sugar. It would be ladled into a large communal drinking vessel, and topped with slices of toasted bread. Modern versions use wine, fruit juice, or ale as a base, warmed with traditional mulling spices, into which brandy or sherry can be added. Apples or oranges are often included and, sometimes, eggs.

Wassail is the drink of Wassailing, which started out as both a celebration of the apple harvest and a ceremony to ensure that there would be a bountiful apple harvest the following year. The word is from the Anglo-Saxon Wæs þu hæl, which means, “be thou hale.” In the days before refrigeration, any food that would keep through the winter took on the kind of importance that made it sacred, and the apple has always been one of the best keepers. Thus, it makes perfect sense that a good apple harvest would be reason for a party! And, it stands to reason that a community would want to give offerings and pour libations to whatever deities presided over the harvest.

The wassailing with which we are most familiar is the kind in which revelers go from door to door, singing songs of the season. In the Middle Ages, the local lord of the manor would give them food and drink. If he did not, then he certainly would not have their good will, at best, and might face more unpleasant consequences.

The point of the Wassail ceremony was to awaken the apple trees, and frighten away any evil spirits that might be lurking. The Wassail King and the Wassail Queen would lead a procession to the orchard, singing/playing instruments all the while. There, the queen would be lifted into the chosen tree, where she would place bits of toast that had been soaked in the wassail bowl onto the branches. Thereupon, those assembled would bang drums or kitchen implements, blow horns, and generally make a racket. At some point they would sing and drink to the health of the orchard. Variations of this ceremony are still performed in parts of England to this day. I plan to try it in my mini-orchard this year.

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