Wassail: A How-To For New Traditions

Occasionally people ask me a question like this, “I’d like to do a Wassail. How should I do it? How I can make it relevant to our place?This year, a friend in the cider world in New York posed this question to me again, and I wanted to share my response for anyone else who might find it useful.

As cider becomes a bigger part of the American scene, people are looking for ways to make some of cider’s seasonal traditions part of our repertoire of events and holiday happenings. Part of what I think makes wassail such fun is that it is already a widely variable tradition and has a lot of interchangeable and adaptable component parts. There is a “choose-your-own-adventure” quality to Wassail, but there are also things that make it recognizable and unique.

There are many details of traditional English Wassails that one can reference – twelve fires, wassail queens, particular songs, the mummer’s play etc – but I think it is more pragmatic to think in terms of generalized essential components, such as:

  • Converge on an orchard or important tree. Feed it some libations. Feed yourself libations.
  • Rouse some spirits / commune with powers of the great beyond manifest in plant form
  • Make lots of noise. Be rowdy.
  • Music and dancing and processing and a bit of folk drama or artistic spectacle
  • Fire. Light up the long night.
  • Feed Everyone well.

Wassail is the act of blessing or a toast, of offering good health to whatever place, person, animal, or plant you plan to visit during the festivities. The visit can be within the farm, the neighborhood, or beyond, but it is the visit itself that counts, the effort to make a special acknowledgement of relationship that is vital to your community. To give some examples of the flexibility of Wassail as a custom, below I show some examples of the breadth of the historical Wassail tradition, followed by some suggestions for planning a new event.

Historical Wassails of Apples, Wheat and Oxen

In historical sources, we find wassail means lots of things, not just a celebration apples. The descriptions we are most familiar with regarding apples often resemble this one from a gentleman in Devon in 1791:

The Wassail of Orchards

Your Hereford correspondent, J. W.’s, account in your entertaining Miscellany, p. 116, of a custom observed in his county on Twelfth eve, induces me to transmit you one not very unlike, which prevails in the other most noted part of this kingdom for cyder, the Southhams of Devonshire. On the eve of the Epiphany, the farmer, attended by his workmen, with a large pitcher of cyder, goes to the orchard, and there, encircling one of the best bearing trees, they drink the following toast three several times :

“Here’s to thee, old apple tree, / Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow ! / And whence thou may’st bear apples enow ! / Hats full ! caps full ! / Bushel ! bushel sacks full / And my pockets full too !

HUZZA !” This done, they return to the house, the doors of which they are sure to find bolted by the females, who, be the weather what it may, are inexorable to all intreaties to open them till some one has guessed at what is on the spit, which is generally some nice little thing, difficult to be hit on, and is the reward of him who first names it. The doors are then thrown open, and the lucky clodpole receives the titbit as his recompence. Some are so superstitious as to believe that, if they neglect this custom, the trees will bear no apples that year. Yours, etc., ALPHONSO

Gomme, The Gentleman’s Magazine LibraryLibrary: Being a Classified Collection of the Chief Contents of The Gentleman’s Magazine from 1731 to 1868, Vol 3 16-17.

Some of the early accounts describe a wassail of the wheat fields with bonfires. John Brand, antiquarian and rationalist Protestant cleric, first documented Wassail customs in his book Observations on Popular Antiquities – Including the Whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgaris with Adenda to Every Chapter of that Work published in 1777 as an annotation of his predecessor Henry Bourne’s (1694-1733) work. In the annotation of Henry Bourne’s work, this description of Wassail occurs in a note on section devoted to harvest suppers, showing a visit to a wheat field that bears many of the same component parts of the orchard Wassail:

The Wassail of Wheat Fields
Mr. Pennant informs us, that a custom prevails in Gloucestershire on the Twelfth-day, or on the Epiphany in the Evening: All of the Servants of every particular Farmer assemble together in one of the Fields that has been sown with Wheat; on the Border of which, in the most conspicuous or most elevated Place, they make twelve Fires of Stray in a Tow; around one of which, made larger than the Rest, they drink a cheerful Glass of Cyder to their Master’s Heath, Success to the future Harvest and ect, then returning home, they feast on Cakes made of Carrawys, and etc, soaked in Cyder, which they claim as a Reward for their past Labours in sowing the grain. –This, he observes, seems to resemble a custom of the antient Danes, who in their Addresses to their rural Deities, emptied on every infocation a Cup in Honor of them.

Henry Bourne , John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities: Including the Whole of Mr. Bourne’s … (J. Johnson, 1777), 336, http://archive.org/details/observationsonp00bourgoog.

In addition to the wheat field, you could wassail the best oxen by throwing a cake on its horns. It’s really more about blessing the most important agricultural products, not just apples. And it is often wildly irreverent (How much cider do you have to have been drinking, and what kind of resultant mood prevailing to throw a cake on a ox’s horn?). One of the most commonly sung Wassail songs in the West Country is the Gloucestershire Wassail, and in each verse, something different is wassailed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloucestershire_Wassail

The Wassail of Oxen
A large cake is always provided, with a hole in the middle. After supper, the company all attend the bailiff (or head of the oxen) to the Wain-house, where the following particulars are observed : the master, at the head of his friends, fills the cup (generally of strong ale), and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen (24 of which I have often seen tied up in their stalls together) ; he then pledges him in a curious toast ; the company then follow his example with all the other oxen, addressing each by their name. This being over, the large cake is produced, and is, with much ceremony, put on the horn of the first ox, through the hole in the cake ; he is then tickled to make him toss his head : if he throws the cake behind, it is the mistress’s perquisite ; if before (in what is termed the boosy), the bailiff claims this prize. This ended, the company all return to the house, the doors of which are: in- the mean time locked, and not opened till some joyous songs are ; sung. On entering, a scene of mirth and jollity commences, and reigns, thro’ the house till a late, or rather an early, hour, the next morning

Gomme, The Gentleman’s Magazine LibraryLibrary: Being a Classified Collection of the Chief Contents of The Gentleman’s Magazine from 1731 to 1868, Vol 3 16-17.

Thoughts For New Wassails

An important aspect of Wassail is to let loose on the last day of the official Christmas holidays, to get out of your stuffy parties and family gatherings and let the wild forces of nature rumble around a bit as you confront the uncertainty of the coming year, its crop, and your labor relations. Labor itself was important. The wassail recognizes that workers and employers depend on each other and offer each other recognition and appreciation. I think what made wassail significant in England was that it was an opportunity to ritually play out a lot of the scenarios that brought uncertainty to the year. Would the crop be good? Would the farm laborers and farm owners get along? Will neighbors be friendly? Will we make it through winter to spring? And from blossom to harvest?

The procession to the orchard or barn or field is particularly important. It’s a way of marking the significance of a place and reinforcing your relationship to it in a personal way, not just a functional way. It is a way of showing your love and gratitude to the place and the produce. When people sing to the trees, it always particularly poignant to me. To sing to something, is to say how much you love and admire it. How wonderful is it that we can express love to a tree?

But there is also a highly social element to wassail. I went to several wassails in Britain at local pubs. I went to some that processed around the village. The wassail should draw people together in a way that reflects their community ties. The interesting wassail adaptations I’ve seen through the years often take on unique aspects of local culture. Kate Garthwaite of Left Field Cider does a “bonspiel” which is curling tournament as part of her wassail in Canada. I love that Elizabeth Ryan of Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider has turned it around to a blossom event that incorporates her Bulgarian music community. I did a Wassail at Finger Lakes Cider House a few years ago with Melissa Madden where her passion for draught horses played a significant part in the event.

If I were imagining a wassail for an orchard or cidery in North America, I’d make sure the wassail did a procession to the orchard or tree, with fire and singing, and music. But I encourage people to be realistic about the weather. It is just a lot less cold in old England and much easier to do the outdoor orchard procession than it can be in New England. Make sure there are indoor options. If I had some artist or theatre friends, I’d see if they wanted to make a little mini-play or interactive piece that speaks to your community. The mummer’s play in England, often a central part of wassail, is a very rigid stylized piece, but what makes it fun is how the actors riff on local politics or town dramas through the figurative action. I’d get a few musician friends to play. And I’d make libations and toasts galore! Beyond that, the wassail is your oyster (actually…oysters would be a very historical New York adaptation!)

Wassail! May your celebrations be joyful, your orchards productive, and your cider delicious.

Wassail: An Unexpected Revival

Flyer for the Foxwhelp Morris Wassail, Preston on Wye 2012

I was sitting in a pub in East Hackney, London one January night a few years ago trying to convince a young man from Portsmouth that English people did in fact practice the custom of wassail.  “Wassail?” he said.  “I’ve never heard of that.  English people don’t do that.  I don’t believe you.”  I parried his aura of certainty with my own indisputable fact: I had just travelled down to a remote corner of Devonshire to participate in a wassail.  I had seen it for myself.  We had traipsed round a village in the Blackdown Hills singing for cider and wishing good health to the farmhouse, the garage, the old vicarage, the pub, and finally the orchard itself. English people DO wassail. The young man’s incredulity about the existence of this custom is understandable, though.  With a few notable exceptions of wassail celebrations that claim to have survived unbroken into the present, such as the one at Carhampton, Somerset, the custom seems to have died out or disappeared most everywhere else, surviving only as a festive Christmas drink or an obsolete word in a carol.  In the past few years, however, a notable revival has been rising, and as several of my friends in England put it, everyone seems to want to have a wassail now. So why did wassailing die out in England, and why is it being revived now?  These were some of the questions I set out to answer when I first trekked out to torchlit winter processions on the twelfth night of Christmas in Devon, and later Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire. Many people think of Wassail as a remnant pagan custom, and it is easy to see why, when black-faced Morris men lead hordes of otherwise tame urbanites carrying torches through old orchards to sing to the apple trees and scare off witches with gunfire.  It’s an enthusiastic performance of what some might think of as a primitive, superstitious approach to life, which might seem refreshing after the daily grind of rational civility. Being outside after the endless indoor Christmas parties feels like a release, and the bonfires and torches light up the night in a way that wakes your tired soul from the dreary sleep of midwinter. And the cider, well the cider just makes you feel sublime, a bit euphoric.  The torches seem brighter.  The night seems blacker.  And it feels like anything is possible inside the circle of trees that almost seem alive.

Morris Man from Silurian Morris at the Tenbury Wassail 2013

I think the custom’s visceral tactile appeal stems from the sensory stimulation of frost and fire and the imaginative tunnel of superstition usually silenced in a society based on scientific rationality.  It’s an opportunity to get out and be a little wild for a night, and that’s what rituals and festivals are often good for, shaking up our everyday habits and injecting the mundane world with mystery and significance we don’t usually feel. Some of the people I came to know who had helped revive wassail over the last twenty years had a much less superstitious orientation to the custom, though, and their perspectives shed light on some of the social realities of rural agricultural life and highlight the enormous social changes it has undergone in the past century.  Wassail, a custom historically based in rural society and food production, has something to teach us about the changing ways we work with each other, as well as the ways we interact with natural and agricultural resources. For Eric Freeman, a life-long farmer in the rural countryside of Gloucestershire, and his friends Pete Symonds, a former electrician from the Forest of Dean, and Albert Rixen, a plumber and engineer, wassail was a tribute to the work of the agricultural year and an emblem of the social contract between farmers and their agricultural workers. Pete Symonds is a skilled tradesman in a rural community whose livelihood suffered with the outsourcing of industrial work overseas.  He saw in wassail the opportunity to celebrate the social bonds of working men and commemorate the cooperative nature of agricultural labor in an era before industrialization. Albert Rixen, devoted to restoring old steam engines, including antique steam powered cider equipment, also lends his workman’s approach to wassail and cider making, keeping alive the mechanical heritage of agricultural work.  Eric Freeman, a tireless supporter of agriculturally-oriented social networks such as the Young Farmers and groups devoted to saving rare breeds of livestock, has dedicated much of his life to the practice of farming not just as a business or even a personal vocation, but a way of life still full of social and cultural richness.

Eric Freeman holding the Wassail Cup at his annual Wassail in Huntley, Gloucestershire

For these men, the resurrection of the custom of wassail was not about superstition at all.  The considerable labor involved in preparing the bonfires and torches and orchestrating the festival mirrored the kind of labor they wanted to celebrate – shared labor, social labor, the kind of labor that was necessary to keep a pre-industrial farm going.  This is the kind of labor that makes work worthwhile, and which seems to be slipping away in a world of global markets, where labor is outsourced, rural communities are left slowly crumbling, and agriculture produces commodities instead of food. It’s also important to remember that the social contract didn’t always work, that standards of living for agricultural workers in the pre-industrial era were generally dire.  But wassail was a moment when the contract was tested, when the workers held the orchard and the farm hostage for a night, demanding food and drink from their employers in return for performing the wassail and ensuring a fertile crop in the year to come.  Superstition becomes bare social reality here, because without a satisfied workforce, the farm could not be productive.  Without workers, there would be no harvest, no fertility.  Wassail was a kind of symbolic labor negotiation, with the potential harvest hanging in the balance.  And the next Monday after twelfth night, known as Plough Monday, work started again.  The fields were ploughed for the coming year.

Leominster Morris Wassail in Eardisley, Herefordshire 2013

It all seems a bit serious for a rowdy evening of cider drinking, morris dancing, and bonfire lighting.  And don’t get me wrong, sometimes one of the most obvious reasons to join in a wassail is simply for a good prank, a good drink, and an excuse to dress up in funny costumes and indulge in a little pyromania.  But the interplay of superstition, social history, and a walloping good time is what makes wassail a tradition with depth and complexity that can appeal to people on many levels, even as they face adapting to economic, social, and environmental change in their communities.

Can wassail take hold in North America?  A real, strong tradition here will depend on our own social needs and reasons for adopting a custom.  It will be exciting to see how it takes shape as we begin to re-invest attention in our agriculture, our orchards, and our cider.  In a way, the social contract we are now re-exploring with our food system, our environment, and our economies makes wassail all the more relevant, and the tables have turned.  Wassail, in all its irreverent topsy turvy midwinter glory, reminds us that agriculture and food production, even in our industrialized, exploitative, globalized era is still a social, and an environmental contract.  In an old-fashioned way, it poses the question “Are we in it together folks?”  And its pretty exciting to hear folks replying: “Here’s to thee old apple tree.”

Orchard near Preston on Wye, Herefordshire, Foxwhelp Morris Wassail 2012

Wassail: Some Historical Reports and their Contexts

5710196-MHave you been dying for some historical sources for the custom of wassail?  Come on, I know you have.  Lucky for you I am the folklorist with the super folklore library collection a mere 30 minute walk from my doorstep.  So I made my way over to the stacks at the Wells Library at Indiana University to forage for some old folklore collections that document Wassail (and then I found some handy online google books versions to share with you!)  Some of the questions a folklorist asks when researching a custom like wassail are:

  • Where was this custom previously documented?
  • Why did people want to document it in the first place?
  • What does this tell us about the meaning of the custom?

So, a little history here: the study of folklore emerged at a time when the rationalism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras (roughly the late 1500s-1800s) created a class of educated men who, infused with the new scientific method, began to wonder why many of their fellow countrymen still believed in or practiced ‘superstitious’ customs.  Early on, this study was called Popular Antiquities, and some of the scholars engaged in collecting and documenting these customs were Protestant clerics, clergymen who were particularly unsettled by the continuation of superstitious beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism.  They concluded that many of these beliefs and practices weren’t grounded in biblical texts at all (and therefore, not properly Christian), but leftover pagan customs that had been adopted into the Catholic Church.  Sometimes their aim was to discover the origins of these pagan customs in order to root them out.  It is interesting today that many of our modern popular interpretations of folklore customs still hinge on an explanation of their pagan origins, even though the original impetus of Protestant reform has long since disappeared. (For some other ways to interpret wassail other than pagan fertility ritual, stay tuned for my next post)

What does this mean?  Knowing this goes a little way to understanding the perspective of those who documented wassail in the early days of folklore and popular antiquities study.  It answers some of questions 1 and 2 above.

So what does this tell us about wassail, and what it meant to those who documented it?  It means we should always be a little wary of taking their descriptions at face value.  Is wassail actually a relic of a pagan fertility custom?  Or is that what the observers in the Enlightenment wanted it to be, due to their own biases of class, religion, and education?  Further, could their informants – the regular folks telling them about the customs – be yanking their chains or manipulating the information given to these early scholars for any reason? It is impossible to know anything for certain, but by reading between the lines, we can make more nuanced interpretations about the place of this custom in history.  History is not a case of fact and fiction, but of documents and interpretations of the content and creation of those documents.

Here is one selection from John Aubrey’s early collection of popular customs Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme written between 1687 and 1689.

Writing slightly later, the antiquarian John Brand, one of the rationalist Protestant clerics, documented these wassail customs in his book Observations on Popular Antiquities: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, which was first written in 1777 enlarged and edited by Sir Henry Ellis in 1813.There’s lots more in the library, and you can wend your way around Google Books for many of the older texts.  For more information about the early Antiquarian folklorists in England, check out The British Folklorists: A History by Richard Dorson.

Wassail story from Radio Program: Living on Earth

We’re right smack in the middle of wassail season.  Twelfth Night (Jan 5) passed last week.  And Old Twelfth Night (Jan 17) comes this Friday.  I’m a bit behind on posts due to moving into a new house, but I will be posting a series of stories about wassail, including links to some guest posts I’ve been working on elsewhere on the web.  First up, I wanted to post a link to a wassail story I heard on the radio program Living on Earth, a weekly environmental news program that airs on my public radio station, and which I listen to fairly regularly and highly recommend.  I was excited to hear something about wassail, and  I’m happy to re-post it here.  Though I must say I’m not a fan of the accent the American storyteller attempts, and her interpretation of wassail is rather different than my own.  But all in all, how great to see wassail out and about in the American media in various interpretations!  The Wassail story, starts at 08:30 on the segment Stories of the Night Sky and an English Wassail (not the full show) and is preceded by another lovely Native American tale.  The whole broadcast is well worth listening to, especially if you are snowed in as I was last weekend.  Enjoy!