A’Wassailing We Shall Go

by Charles E S Fairey, 2015

Wassailing’ is a traditional medieval custom often practiced in times past, which has been making somewhat of a resurgence in the minds and lives of modern man. It is a pagan custom often carried out at the dead of winter, often after New Year, and in the past around Twelfth Night.

‘Wassailing’ refers to a salutation to a fruit tree, and the act of the salute is a prayer / incantation for a good harvest for the coming year. This veneration is carried out in front of the tree(s) in Winter time, and wishes the tree or trees ‘be you healthy’, which is the literal meaning of ‘wassail’, and to bring on its growth and to flower in the coming Spring, a time when the outside world is reborn with life.

The ‘be you healthy’ meaning to ‘wassail’ is on a par with us, when we drink to another person’s health when consuming alcohol, and this is much the same but to the health of the tree.

The tradition is often carried out with cider apple trees, but in the past when orchards were the norm for many cottages, farms, halls and estates, this practice would have been widespread, venerating many fruit trees as well as the humble apple.

When we gather for a ‘wassailing’ these days, a group of folk meet up in an orchard, whether interested in pagan, historic re-enactment, bygone history or its customs, or the cider industry, or just for the enjoyment of communal interaction, we are doing what our ancestors would have done, in a joyous but in their time also a serious manner.

In the medieval past, whether they had a good or bad, or harvest at all, was a matter of life and death. Depending upon the harvest, people could starve and die, or live and survive, so therefore in those more superstitious days, especially amongst the countryside communities, where most of the population lived, this practice was not just for making merry but had a very serious deadly connotation.

In that past, venerating the land was a serious business; objects as well as drink or food sacrifices were commonplace. To give something back to the land with a prayer or a spiritual ceremony, in their eyes, ensured that the year would be good, harvest wise and hence health wise, in other words the land had been fed so that it might feed them in return.

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A’Wassailing We Shall Go

by Charles E S Fairey

A’wassailing we shall go

With the breeze, the wind and the snow

A’wassailing we shall go

The cider, the apples and the mistletoe,

Wassail Wassail we greet thee

A little bread for the birds in the tree,

A little cider poured upon thee, our love we show,

And a song to help your flowers, leaves and apples grow,

Wassail Wassail we greet thee

Oh, Great and Ancient Apple Tree!

We sing and chant Wassail Wassail

May your flowers adore thee

And your apples grow, without fail

Oh, Our Friend, Great and Ancient Apple Tree,

Wassail Wassail we sing

Me, you and the Holly Tree King,

Beneath your branches we play our melodies and dance

And scare away Evil Old Nick in joyous defiance,

And we sing and sing, Oh, Great and Ancient Apple Tree

With our words, music, bread and cider we adorn thee!

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Today, we celebrate wassailing as an inherited custom, brought back into vogue in many UK places, but for some, more as a historic re-enactment, for merry making, enjoyment and friendly interaction. However, if the modern attendee is part of a pagan belief system, which demands spiritually in most cases, the veneration of nature, and our continued reliance upon what the Earth provides us with, albeit now, in a technologically advanced world, then it forms part of something which may be paramount to their praxis.

Nowadays, a group of people attend an organised ‘Wassail’, often like an outdoor party, with mulled cider or other spiced drink, food and of course the ensuing merriment of the occasion. However the tradition may also serve the solitary or small group practitioner(s) as well. The ‘wassail’ drink in the past, would have relied on those taking part, their social class, as well as the availability of the ingredients. Today there are many recipes for the accompanying drink, which is also now known as ‘Wassail’.

Usually it takes place after dusk, and before the ceremony begins, after all have gathered, a story, or a play, is told or performed, with significance to harvesting and trees, usually with a hero and a bad guy.

Sometimes the organisers may dress up as the ‘Apple Tree Man’ (The Spirit of the Oldest Apple Tree in the orchard) or the ‘Green Man’, a horse man, or hobby horse, often with a horse’s head or skull taking part, known as ‘Owd Oss’ in some parts, or a ‘Lord of Misrule’, as well as the musicians, and often a bygone dressed farmer. Other participants hand around food to present as offerings to the birds, often bread / toast to adorn the trees with, as well as dish out the drinkies and food, for the participants.

Lanterns or torches of light are used to light our way around the trees, often with people dressed in fancy dress or period costume, or sporting some sort of accompanying pagan or historic dress adornment(s), and also often with musical instruments, which help the attendees process around the orchard.

The use of rattles, bells, drums, pipes, tambourines, and other jingling / clattering objects is employed to wake up the hibernating good spirits, but also to scare away the evil spirits which may destroy the harvest, sometimes even a shotgun is used just to remind Old Nick that he best stay clear of the harvest, often ending the (wassail) toast, see below, with a violently loud crescendo of noise!

Bread / toast and other delights for the birds are often attached to the trees, to please the good spirits, and the mulled cider is poured onto the tree’s roots to ensure its rebirth from the winter.

Another part of the ceremony is the ‘Wassail Cup’, which is a communal bowl passed around to everyone there, and a sip by each participant is taken in veneration to a good and healthy harvest for the future, and hence good health and wellbeing to ourselves.

Also, probably the most important aspect of the custom is to sing and speak a toast to the tree, venerating the tree as a living entity, much like ourselves, and speak to its spirit (‘The Apple Tree Man’) whilst we stand below its branches.

Often after the proceedings, the party carries on, usually with musicians and singers playing folk and drinking songs to entertain the crowd into the night.

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“Wassailing Brethren”

Michael ‘Jarl’ Oakes & Charles E S Fairey

(Photo Credit: Jan Oakes 2015)

Me and Michael ‘Jarl’ Oakes were lucky enough this year (January 2015) to be invited by our friend, Historian, Museum Officer and Medieval Musician, Tom Hughes, to his annual ‘Wassailing’ Event.

This year the ‘wassailing’ event was held at Stretton Mill, a historic 17th Century working water-powered flour mill, situated near to Farndon in West Cheshire, which is open to the public as a museum and visitor centre at periods throughout the year.

Please see: https://www.cheshirewestmuseums.org/page_id_62/,

or http://strettonwatermill.blogspot.com/, for more information about the mill and visiting times.

The mill has a small historic apple tree orchard as well as a modern orchard, where we congregated and noisily and joyfully processed through, to the accompanying parading bagpipes, drums and bells, following the ‘Apple Tree (Tom) Man’ and his musicians.

It was the largest gathering of locals and invited guests since the four years Tom has been organising this ‘wassailing’ event, with over 60 people attending.

We watched the Sun go down in the West, and then we were greeted by a waxing Full Moon in the East, as well as a rising mist coming from the waters of the mill pool that feeds the still turning water wheels, the mill leet and the nearby stream.

Tom, dressed for the occasion, along with his famous bagpipes, and in his usual historically based folk tale / troubadour manner, introduced us to his version of the story of ‘The Apple Tree Man’, decked with his own woollen white beard and woollen holly wreath hat.

We made lots of noise as well as the music, to wake the good spirits from slumber, and to scare away the malevolent ones, and hung toast in the trees for the birds, which represent the good spirits of the trees.

We saluted the trees with ‘WASSAIL!’ and sang our version (Stretton Watermill / Tom Hughes’ version) of the ‘Wassail Song’, and poured cider upon the roots of the most ancient apple tree there, hoping that this year would be healthy for the trees and their harvest, as well as a happy and healthy New Year for all who gathered beneath the orchard’s branches that night, and their families.

The Apple Tree Wassail

“Oh, apple tree we wassail thee,

And hope that thou will bear.

For the Lord does know where we shall be,

To be merry another New Year.

For to bear well, and to share well,

So merry may we be.

Let every man raise up his cup,

And shout health to the old apple tree.”


“Old Apple Tree, we wassail thee,

And hope that thou shall bear,

Hat fulls, Cap fulls, Three bushel bag-fulls

And a little heap under the stairs!”

(The Stretton Watermill / Tom Hughes’ ‘Wassail Song’)

After the uninitiated oddness, turning to sheer interest and enjoyment, and the revealing nature of our (The Mystic Masque’s) first ‘Wassailing’, we gathered afterwards at the Carden Arms for an after-party, with accompanying folk music, songs, and stories, as well as the passing round of the ‘Wassail Cup’, to think of how special it was to ‘Wassail’ and be part of an ancient, historic and spiritual tradition, rooted in our ancestors minds and those spirits of the land, and of nature and tree veneration.


(Photo Credit: Jan Oakes 2015)

The YouTube Video of the Wassail Event filmed and Edited by Michael can be found

@ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvKJI1ntVFo

If you are interested in attending other, but open to the public events that our friend Tom Hughes organisers, then please see his blog events page @ http://pilgrimsandposies.blogspot.co.uk/p/future-events.html.

Tom had also blogged the ‘Wassail’ event, with accompanying photos, which may be found @ http://pilgrimsandposies.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/a-merry-wassail.html.

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There are a large number of traditional ‘Wassail’ songs, as well as modern versions, but I have chosen a traditional ‘Wassail’ song from my maternal home of the Forest of Dean, which was sung and hopefully still is, around the area of Brockweir and St Briavel’s, and goes as follows:-

A whistle, a wassail about our town

The cup it is black and the ale it is brown

The cup it is made of the mulberry tree

So here, good fellow, we’ll drink unto thee.

Here’s to the quick and to the right horn

Pray God send the master a good crop of corn

Both wheat, rye and barley and all sorts of grain

So here, good fellow, we’ll drink to thee again.

If your missus and master they be not at home

Or if they be abroad, God send them safe home

Or if they be at home let them live at their ease

So fetch out the white loaf and the whole cheese.

Come all you pretty maidens that reel on your pin

Pray open the door and let the wassailers in

For if you are maidens or if you are none

Pray don’t let the wassailers stay on the cold stones. (repeat last 2 lines)

(Source: http://www.gloschristmas.com/wassail/wassails-a-f/wassail-song-brockweir)

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In January 2016, The Mystic Masque visited the 2nd Penkhull Wassail in Stoke on Trent, which incorporated Domesday Morris, Penkhull Village Brass and the Mystery Singers.

The Event was well attended and intensely enjoyable, with much dancing, prayers, songs and recitals, as well as a Garden Party with Punch, a fire torch Procession around Penkhull, taking in Fruit Trees, Dances and Brass, with singing around the Pubs, and much merry making.

Well worthy to attend when it takes place next year, a real spectacle not to be missed!

Here's a Video we made of the Event, but remember there was so so much more going on than what's shown in the video!

The 2nd Penkhull Wassail:-