Wassail Traditions: Awakening Nature
During January, communities in Britain gather in orchards to bring a blessing to the trees. It’s called ‘Wassail’ and originates from ‘waes hael’ which could be translated into ‘be healthy’ or ‘be whole’. Wassailing is the echo of rituals from the past when people would toast to the last harvest in late autumn and share the drink with the earth in order to bless its health for the coming Spring and to repel any bad influences. The deeper motivation being to safeguard a good yield in the next harvesting season.
In modern times, this is still the motivation but the time of blessing has been moved to January. The Wassail was preferably held on the last day of the 12 days of Yule with the traditional preferred date being January 17th because this is the ‘old twelfth night' (according to the pre-Gregorian calendar). On the Gregorian calendar it is held on January 5th or 6th. Which coincides with the Christian “Ephiphany' or ‘Three Kings’ celebration.
Wake up, Nature, wake up!
To conduct a Wassail in the orchard and on the fields is the first fertility ritual of the New Year. It takes place before the festival of Imbolc. After the dark and long winter, it was hoped and believed that the saps would start flowing again in the trees and in the land. An awakening of Nature! Modern Wassailing helps the fruit trees by waking them up with noise while the health blessing of a toast seals a good harvest. The Bees play an important role in the process and therefore they too were blessed in the older Wassail rituals. Bees are indeed an all important link in the chain of our existence. And in these times where bees are having difficulty coping, a Wassail blessing could make a difference. Remember everything in nature is alive, aware and responsive. We can make a difference!
Wassailing can mainly be found in the apple- and pear growing regions of Britain but from old folklore traditions we can read that other countries bless their trees (and animals) too. In Belgium and the Netherlands, horses, fields and farmer tools are being blessed. There are even tractor blessings!
A traditional Wassail ritual often consists of three components:
For the blessing, a special bowl was appointed for the task. Often made from ash wood because it has no taste of its own. Later a ceramic bowl, clay or china bowl was used. There would be a grip on both sides of the bowl that resembles the Scottish ‘Quaiche’ (a friends chalice). The bowl was only used for the purpose of the Wassail ritual.
Shortly before evening, the brew was prepared. Usually an alcoholic drink that reminds of mulled wine. And indeed these do originate from Wassail recipes. Apple- or pear cider was also appreciated for the blessing toast. The brew was poured into the Wassail bowl which would then be ceremonially carried to the orchard.
There are different versions of the Wassail ceremony, depending on the region, culture and activities. It was common to carry tools with them that could case loud noise; sticks, drums, pots and pans.
The ceremony would take place at the eldest and most appreciated tree in the orchard. This tree would be gifted a serenade by means of chant, song, quote, poem or speech, praising the tree for its abundant fruit yield in the years before. Maybe this tree could even increase the harvest this year?
Each participant took a cup from the Blessing Brew and stood under the tree to recite a blessing, like this one:
Old Apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
Hat fulls, Cap fulls
Three bushel bag fulls
And a little heap under the stair
Then the trees would be awakened by drumming its trunk (and branches within reach) with the sticks to entice the saps to rise. Often accompanied by the loud noise of pots and pans, drums and even guns! This noise was supposed to work like an alarm clock that helped the trees to awaken and to chase bad spirits or negative influences away. New Year’s fireworks serves a similar purpose.
In some regions the participants would bow their heads in honour to the tree.
At the end of the ceremony, little pieces of bread would be dipped in to the Wassail bowl and laid between the roots of the trees as an offering to include the Tree Spirit and the elementals in the process of harvest.
The last bit of brew was ceremonially shared with one another by passing the bowl around while standing around that tree.
Other variations of the Wassail ritual
In the Bohemian tradition a similar ritual took place around Easter. People would visit trees to ask them to start flowering (or else!). The day after, when the church bells would ring, the farmers went to the trees to shake them en to wake them up with noise.
Influenced by Christian tradition, in Polish tradition people on New Year’s Eve would shoot their guns at bushes, trees and across the fields to scare the ‘witches’ away. Sometimes they would bind straw around the trunks of fruit trees to save them from harm. The witches here, are a modern version of the spirits or energies of the ‘Otherworld’, who, according superstition, could cross the doorway into our dimension during the 12 days of Yule to party along. The noise magic intended to scare these entities away to their own place in the universe. That’s why this ritual was often done in the last day of the 12 days of Yule.
Sometimes, men in Devon who left the orchard had to solve a riddle before they could cross the threshold of their house. Probably a symbolic act to keep the energies of the Otherworld (or witches or evil spirits) outside.
An interesting variation of the ceremony: men stand in a circle with a fire in the centre and recite the mantra "Auld Ci-der" threefold. At each of the three syllables they would bow towards the fire (three times three). The first two notes would be sang in a normal tone of voice but the last one would get a deep voice effect like that of a didgeridoo. The chant thereby charged with a hypnotic effect, much like a shamanic trance and very likely meant to be able to contact the Spirit of the apple or pear tree.
Sometimes a King and a Queen (the ones who would find a bean in their cake) were chosen to carry a lit torch from orchard to orchard. The Queen would put the bread in the apple tree and pour cider over the tree’s roots.
Other ancient symbolism: lighting 12 small fires and 1 big fire.
In January, hawthorn branches would be lit and taken around the fields that would later be seeded. Or around the place where they kept the seeds. The fire is a symbolic representation for the return of the Sun – and thus the lengthening of day light.
Sloe branches would be used to make a crown and baked in an oven. Then it was taken to the corn field and burned to ashes. The ashes would be scattered on the farming fields.
In Normandy (France) torches were lit and thrown to the fruit tree trunks. Small fires were lit under the branches of fruit trees by a virgin (fertility).
In Swiss areas groups of boys would carry burning torches and produce lots of noise to scare off malevolent tree spirits.
Libation of cider and beer would be poured onto the farm fields.
In some parts of Britain it was believed that a robin was an incarnation of a tree and therefore the robin too was offered a libation. A variation is that a child, often a boy, would be placed between the branches and he then would accept a piece of bread or cake, drenched in apple cider, on behalf of the robin. These are all plays for the subconsciousness depicting the accepting of an offering by a tree spirit.
Pieces of bread or cake would be buried on the farm fields.
The Ox horn dates back to prehistoric times and would have six dancers, dressed like oxen, and dancing around the tree with stomping feet in order to awaken the animal spirits and the earth and prepare for the spring.
No matter which ritual or ceremony, the first fertility ritual of the new year is a welcome diversion from the dark winter days. And in modern times where we seek to reconnect with nature, these kind of celebrations are a great start of the new harvest year. Shall we dance?
Idea: make up your own Wassail ritual based on elements of this article. Your garden, local park, fields, favourite fairy tree, woods or any place you feel drawn to now, go to it and do you own ritual (solitary or with others) to awaken nature