By now I’m sure many of you will have seen photos, videos and articles about this year’s wassail, and if you’ve now lost a raincoat in a blazing inferno and have singed half your beard, you may have even participated in one yourself. I’ve decided to wait until now to wax lyrical about this time-honoured tradition, as the 17th January is Old Twelvey – the true Pagan New Year. The 6th January is commonly known as Twelfth Night, but this has only been the case since 1752, when Britain controversially moved over to the Gregorian Calendar, sparking the English Calendar riots at the immediate loss of eleven days. And it was only 11 years later that an ill-judged attempt to alleviate Britain’s national debt, after its involvement in the costly Seven Years War, led to the introduction of a Cider Tax and the subsequent 1763 Cider Riots. We certainly did enjoy our civil disobedience in the 18th Century!
So, it only seems right for me to get my pagan on and to celebrate Wassail on Old Twelvey as the origins of the word pre-date Christianity in Britain, and is of surprising etymological significance. Anglo Saxon tradition included a New Year celebration in the halls of the Lord of the Manor, including a mighty feast with a giant bowl of hot cider, infused with spices and crab apples. The Lord would toast those present with the cry of waes hael, meaning ‘be whole’ or, literally, ‘good health’. The hearty response from the assembled would be drink hael – today we would say ‘cheers!’. Floating in this cider punch would have been sops – pieces of bread or toast – hence the origin of the term ‘to toast’.
The spirit of wassailing – to bless, toast, share and give thanks during the Yuletide/festive/New Year’s period – has continued through the centuries. The Victorians seized upon this spirit of generosity by endorsing the concept of wassailing from door to door – poorer folk singing songs in return for charitable giving, rather than begging. This soon morphed into the ever popular Christmas Caroling. And, of course, the much enjoyed mulled cider (often known as wassail and a far more palatable spiced drink than its vinous cousin IMHO), is a direct descendent of the original spiced cider punch drunk all those centuries back.
But it’s the orchard wassail that has retained its significance and mythical status in the cider world, especially in those heartland regions in the West of England. The ceremony itself has been well documented online (you can find an extended recording on my Facebook page). For the uninitiated, it involves gathering the local community in a cider orchard, to bless the largest apple tree and appealing to Pomona, the apple goddess, for a bountiful forthcoming harvest. There’s a crashing of pots and pans, singing, flaming torches and bonfires. It’s basically Wicker Man but with West Country accents.
Every wassail will be unique, with traditions, symbols and rituals differentiating them. The one common denominator, however, and the true spirit of waes hael, is the opportunity for everyone in the community to get together and to give thanks. My wassail bible is an unassuming, plain pamphlet written by the Campaign for the Revival Of Wassailing (CROW), a group of professional miscreants from deepest, darkest Gloucestershire (Forest of Dean, me old butt). But who knew that these folk could so eloquently describe why the Wassail is the tonic for our times:
“It creates an atmosphere where we can make amends, end hostilities, forgive insults, heal wounds and let bygones be bygones. It creates an atmosphere where we can make new friends, especially between the old and young and between the sexes. It creates a better working relationship and feelings of unity, of all being as one”.
I’ll toast to that. Pomona knows, the world could do with a little more of this right now.