It’s January, and I’m a cider writer, so, as is written into the Code of Ethics of the Guild of Cider Writers (not yet a real thing, but feels like it might not actually be too far away?), I am duty bound to write about Wassail.
The good news is that this ancient custom has, rather wonderfully, been well documented and explored over the last few years. Notable examples include Colin Cater’s fab book
and, cider photographer in residence Bill Bradshaw’s stunning imagery
. Yours truly also wrote about wassailing
in my first book, Ciderology (still available to purchase!
), encapsulating some of the key features, and inherent loveliness, of this winter time gathering.
Since writing that article, my knowledge about wassail has simultaneously grown and got reduced to nought at the same time as I have come to fully understand, and accept, that the term wassail
is not the sole domain of cider, or of orchards. The original etymological pips have sprouted many different wildings, but sporting genetic links.
Here’s a potted history:
700 AD - Old Norse-derived salutation
The roots seem to stretch as far back as the original party animals – the Vikings. Much like their exuberant Scandinavian antecedents, the Vikings were cheery (if slightly pillage-y) folks, and vas heil
was their Old Norse language salutation, meaning “be whole” or “good health”. Modern equivalents would be – greetings (England), kia ora (Te Reo Maori, New Zeland) or howdy (19th
century USA Midwest character from xxxx - insert Spaghetti Western of your choice here).
800 AD: Anglo Saxon-derived salutation
When the Vikings, and Old Norse, got to England, they met their Danish frenemies, the Anglo Saxons. Pleasantries were exchanged, the Vikings left, but lots of the Old Norse language got morphed into Old English. The spelling of vas heil
changed to waes hael
. But it wasn’t just the spelling that altered to, it was the meaning, for waes hail
as a salutation was now being applied as a drinking formula – something you say before having a swig of an alcoholic beverage.
Modern equivalents would be cheers! (American TV series that launched the career of Ted Danson) Topa! (Basque country), Kanpai! (Japan), Yec’hed mat! (Bretagne), Sláinte! (Ireland) Skål! (broadly Scandinavia) Prost! (Germany, Luxembourg & Austria) and ¡Salud! (Spain).
These Anglo-Saxons also changed things up by introducing a response to the cry of waes hail
, that being drinc hail!
At some point, pieces of brad, or toast, were added to the beverage being saluted with, thus coining the phrase to toast
800: Spiced beverage
Much of this drinking and saluting was being undertaken with a specific beverage – a co-fermentation (bang on trend) of beer, mead and cider with a healthy lashing of spices, such as ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Over time, waes hail
as Modern English would now have us spell it), has become synonymous with a spiced cider, and then warm, spiced cider, primarily drunk in the winter. This term remains especially strong in the USA, it would seem. In the UK, come the 15th century, this drink was often referred to as ‘lambswool’ on account of apple placed into hot liquid popping and producing a fluffy white souffle. Latterly, in the UK, the term mulled cider is largely associated with a warm spiced cider, a term borrowed from mulled wine.
This whole saluting, responding, drinking and repeating thing with a spiced fermentation in the depths of winter started to become a bit of a ritual across many parts of rural England. It was something that brought families and communities together in celebration and giving thanks. James Crowden in Cider Country
describes “cider wassail was an almost religious affair with a wooden altar and special cups, as if it was a pagan communion”
and the bowl from which the drink was served was often mad of expensive wood or metal.
1500 – Yule tide custom of singing and recompense.
Evetually all this communion and revelry left the confines of the house and went out onto the streets, where the customs of Midwinter, Christmas, Saturnalia and the Misrule began to intertwine and blend like a great cider. Singing for money was undertaken door to door, with the expected promise of money in return, sometimes with the threat of violence if not. In the Victorian era this morphed into the far more genteel Christmas carolling, sometime with a nod to its oft-menacing past, such as We Wish You a Merry Christmas - “now, bring us some figgy pudding…for we all like figgy pudding…and we won't go until we got some”.
1500 Orchard Wassailing.
In some parts of the West and South West of England, some revellers thought their time was better spent not trying to grab a shilling off the Lord of the Manor, but to go out into the orchard and appeal to the old gods for a bountiful harvest. This rural wassail wasn’t just confined to apples and orchards, either – all manner of crops have been wassailed in the past, and even cows!
Surely wassail, in whichever interpretation of the word you choose, can’t be something solely isolated to the little old British Isles? Well, when it comes to ancient customs such as shin-kicking
, tar barrel running
, bog snorkelling
and cheese rolling
(proudly from my home County of Gloucestershire), maybe our eccentricities do set us apart from our global peers.
Upon contemplating international wassailing, I had a flashback to the most memorable orchard wassail I have ever participated in, hosted by my friends at Angry Orchard at their fantastic Cider House in Walden, NY
. Now, I’m used to being chilly when wassailing, toes crunching in wellies and sometimes (like the Herefordshire Wassail I participated in 2010) dancing like a tool in the snow. But this was a wassail at -10 c (xx F) with my moustache in imminent danger of breaking off like an icicle.
This was memorable for a plethora of orchard wassail firsts: first in the USA; first preceded by a seven course cider matched dinner of utterly exquisite quality; first I’ve ever participated in that started after 1am; first where I have worn a fox mask; and first where I have woken up the next morning in a greater state of disrepute than was advisable for even for Oliver Reed.
The Angry Orchard orchard wassail is, of course, a recent phenomenon, joyously extolling the proud, eccentric and deep rooted culture of cider from the British Mothership. But this recollection got me thinking as to just how unique this ancient custom was to Great Britain. Did it get exported to the USA, along with apple trees with the New England colonists? I haven’t come across any pre-prohibition accounts of orchard wassailing (anyone know of any then let me know!), but it would seem the much of the non-orcharding elements were
This has been well documented this excellent article on the Slavery and Remembrance website. Here, the author, Robert Doares, documents accounts of wassailing practices over the centuries, including menacing wassailers from late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, violently demanding homemade perry; Southern plantation owners opening their doors to Slaves at Christmas like their peers, British squires; and the emergence of eggnog as a new interpretation of the wassail drink.
Photo: Willie Smith's Cider
Beyond the US and Canada, there are only the odd instance of orchard wassailing (the Wille Smith’s Mid-Winter Festival
springs to mind), but what of the Old World of orchards and cider – North West Europe? Interestingly, from the little research that I undertook, Normandy, Brittany and Asturias, although having autumnal and winter customs, didn’t undertake anything with a strong wassail link. Maybe unsurprisingly, the greatest evidence of wassail-esque actions come from culture with old, pre-Christian roots – the Basques.
Photo: Haritz Rodriguez
Of course, Basque cider culture has its own unique tradition, that of txotx
– the tasting of the new vintage cider. Haritz Rodrigues, aka Ciderzale, is a Basque cider expert and has written, presented and advocated on the subject for a number of years. In this article
he describes the origins of txotx
, but he also tells me that British wassail is linked to broader European ‘carnivals’ that take place between January and February, saying goodbye to the dark winter, welcome to welcome spring and asking for a prosperous harvest. Here he describes some of the similarities in detail:
“In the Basque Country, during carnival, there is a custom known as "puska biltzea". It is about going to the houses and farms offering dances in exchange for food. In fact, even the clothing closely resembles that of the British Morris Dancers. In some places they dress as "Moors" or "Gypsies", both characters very widespread in rural Carnival.”
“Carnival is a deeply rooted tradition in the Basque Country. From the most ancient rural carnivals, through the carnivals of the Renaissance and even the most modern such as those of Tolosa. They are not especially linked to the cider culture nowadays, but it is true that there is a set of dances known as "Apple Dances" (Sagar Dantzak).”
Photo: Haritz Rodriguez
So, it would seem that, although broader wassail customs are shared across Europe, the act of orchard wassailing is something really rather unique to the cider lovers of our little set of islands. Lush! Having regionally-linked, cider idiosyncrasies is something to be celebrated - the Bretons and Normans have keeving
; the Asturians have escansiar
; the Basques have txotx
; and the British have dancing like idiots with flaming torches and shotguns in a frigid orchard.
The essence of orchard wassailing continues to be that sense of community – of bringing people together, sharing, celebrating and laughing. Pomona knows, we could all do with a bit of that after the last two years of challenge. But, the orchard wassail doesn’t come without some of its own challenges, and considerations, however.
Within many of the classic Western cider making areas, the orchard wassail is often led by sides of Border Morris Men who, classically blacken their faces. There are many theories associated with the roots of this costume. One strongly held view pertains to 15th
century poor farm worker smearing soot on their faces to obscure their identity as they begged – illegal at the time. Others point to the origin as a copy-cat of Moorish (Morris) dancing
, of the Elizabethan era and then latterly the 19th
century minstrel tradition, replete within colourful clothes, music and skin tone.
Yes, Border Morris blackening their faces is a tradition, but so was bear baiting indentured servitude - it doesn’t necessarily make it appropriate today. Even if the origins of black face
were not originally racist in intent, one cannot simply divorce the connotations in our society. We can’t shy away from the awkward questions. We can’t say it doesn’t matter. The simple fact is, blackening faces will make people of colour feel uncomfortable and not want to participate and celebrate this great cider custom.
As has been necessitated by the Morris Federation since 2020
, I propose that Morris Men, or any other erstwhile participants of orchard wassailing, use another colour of face paint instead, namely classic pagan green. Donning green face
still fits the custom of disguise and is very much aligned to Pacha Mama and the Green Man.
Let’s not turn this into a culture wars argument – how about just recognising that cider, just like Morris, is a living tradition, constantly evolving and adapting to the times, and that we all want cider to be a welcome and safe space and place. I say wassail