Wassailling – A winter tradition in Somerset

Until I moved to Somerset I had never heard the word Wassail before.  I quickly learned that it is a Winter tradition that has been going on for over 400 years.

What is “Wassailing” and what does the word “Wassail” mean?

The word “wassail” is an Anglo-Saxon greeting meaning ‘be in good health’.  A simple greeting later became a toast.

Wassail is also the name of a hot cider mulled with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.  It was a drink designed for sharing out of a large ‘wassailing bowl’.  The large bowl always had many handles so that many hands could hold onto it.

Tradition had it that on the 12th Night (around the 5th or 6th of January) people would visit cider orchards to perform a ceremony to bless the trees.  This ‘wassail’ was done to encourage a good harvest of cider apples in the coming year.

Wasailing ceremonies take place throughout the month of January

During the month of January you will find many Wassailing ceremonies taking place here in Somerset.  They are often community events held in community orchards or are held in local pubs or cider makers orchards.  Around us here at Middlewick there is usually one each weekend.  The large ones take place at the Somerset Rural Life Museum, the Avalon orchard and The Red Lion Pub. Have a look at our Monthly Calendar to see others that are taking place around us.

 

What happens at a Wassail?

If you get the chance to go along to a Somerset Wassail, here is what you can expect to happen.

First a Wassail queen(or king) is chosen from the crowd.  Pieces of cider soaked toast is tied to the branches of the trees in the orchard as an offering to the spirits.  Cider is  poured over the roots of the apple trees to encourage a good harvest.

putting toast in the trees

Usually only one tree is the focus of the ceremony and this tends to be the oldest of the trees.  It is believed that the oldest tree is the one responsible for the fertility of the entire orchard.

Traditional Wassail Songs are sung to the trees and a wassail bowl full of hot cider is passed around all the participants to drink from.

Now the really fun bit involves lots of noise.  If you are going to a wassail make sure and bring pots, pans or drums to bang.   The noise is meant to scare off all the evil spirits in the orchard so that there will be a good harvest in the year to come.

It is a really fun night out, a great excuse to make some noise and drink some cider.