Wassailing - Gastro Obscura

Ritual & Medicinal

Wassailing

This wintertime serenade for apple trees also involves firing rifles and drinking cider.

For hundreds of years, people living in southern England have sung to their apple trees in the middle of winter. Fans of Christmas songs are likely already familiar with the word wassail, but might not know that the term, now a synonym for “caroling,” once meant singing to encourage a good harvest of apples and to dispel evil spirits.

Though scholars are unsure if wassailing has roots in ancient tradition or was simply meant as an excuse to drink and sing, the custom dates back around 500 years. While the date was different many years ago, today’s celebration typically takes place on January 5, also known as Twelfth Night (i.e., the twelfth day after Christmas). Revelers march into orchards and, by the light of bonfires and torches, decorate the best-producing apple tree with slices of toast soaked in cider to feed birds and good spirits. As for evil spirits, a few blasts from rifles suffice to frighten them away. Then, celebrants sing a traditional wassail song, usually different from region to region.

The cider isn’t just for the birds, either. A drink called wassail, made from cider or ale, gets passed around. Some is even poured on the roots of the decorated tree.

Wassailing and other Old English traditions faded after the Industrial Revolution. But in the last few decades, it’s made a comeback, and not just in England either. If you live in an apple-growing region, Twelfth Night might include a wassail at an orchard near you.

Need to Know

These days, cider companies often hold wassails. Sometimes, you need to book in advance. Some English counties still celebrate on the traditional "Twelfth Night" of the Julian calendar, January 17. 

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Contributed by
Anne Ewbank
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