Guide to Wassailing

Wassailing is an ancient winter custom in Britain, designed to ensure a good apple harvest in the following autumn. It takes place in orchards, with wassailers usually proceeding from one to another, and revolves around a noisy medieval drinking ritual with plenty of noise and singing. Here’s a quick guide to the ancient custom, which takes place in January just as the previous year’s cider is at its best.

The word wassail derives from the Old Norse ‘ves heil’ meaning ‘be hale’ or ‘good health’. Wassailing is also linked to house-visiting traditions such as carol-singing and first-footing, which also take place in winter, and happens throughout cider country.

Raising a toast

No two wassail ceremonies are exactly the same, but they generally involve a wassail queen or king leading a procession, often in traditional costume, through the orchards. The wassail queen, or sometimes a small boy dubbed Tom Tit, places cider-soaked toast in the boughs of the trees, accompanied by drinking and singing. Hence the phrase ‘raising a toast.’

Despite its pagan origins, wassailing takes place around Twelfth Night or Epiphany in the Christian calendar. Nowadays, Twelfth Night is variously January 5 or 6 but before 1752, when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar, it fell on January 17.

Mulling it over

Wassail is also the drink, passed around in a wassail bowl, or loving cup, usually goblet-shaped and made from a wood such as white maple that does not affect the flavour. Wassail recipes vary but are usually based on mulled cider, sometimes with sherry and port. Some use ale and roast apples, which are burst to make fluffy ‘lamb’s wool’.

Saltram House Wassail 2015 Photo by Brian Mark

During wassailing, singing, banging pots and pans, and even firing a shotgun through the branches wakes the trees and drives away evil spirits. Incantation or singing to the apple trees is meant ensure a good harvest. That’s not so different from talking to plants to keep them happy. Artists who have recorded versions of wassailing songs include Kate Bush, Blur, Big Big Train and Half Man, Half Biscuit.

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