Just as many were taking down their Christmas decorations and continuing to enjoy presents powered by the micro-chip, groups of people were gathering in orchards across the world to join in a ceremony and ritual whose roots can be traced back at least two thousand years. The increasing popularity of this ancient ceremony is saying something challenging and important to society and Church. Wassail – good health.
What is Wassailing?
‘Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green’ and ‘Wassail, wassail, all over the town’ were carols sung over the Christmas period. As far as being well known is concerned, they may not be up there among ‘O come, all ye faithful’ and ‘Hark the herald-angels sing’ but they are certainly to be found in collections of Christmas carols. Furthermore, having moved from Kent to Somerset, I have discovered that wassailing is alive and well: paradoxically, it was after moving to Somerset that I discovered that wassailing is, in fact, growing in popularity in Kent. I have been wassailing twice over the last few weeks and, apart from being great fun, I am convinced that the ancient tradition of wassailing, which has pre-christian roots, says something about society’s relationship with culture, can refresh the Church’s relationship with community and culture and help society’s engagement with the environment. But what is wassailing?
‘Wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word which means ‘Good health’ and over the centuries wassail has been said both to people and also to creation. In Porlock, West Somerset, the community comes together for its wassail celebrations on 6th January (Twelfth Night). A young person is chosen as Wassail Queen. The celebrations begin with food and drink (mulled cider) followed by a Mummers’ Play – a folk drama depicting St. George fighting against evil and (eventually) prevailing. There is then a procession to the orchard where a ceremony takes place around the oldest apple tree which is laden with Christmas decorations and lights. The tree is ‘wassailed’ with a song (see below for the words). The purpose of wassailing the tree is to wake it up after its long winter sleep and to chase away evil spirits which may disease it and prevent it from blossoming – this will have been particularly important for communities which depend upon apples for the local economy. Toast dipped in cider is hung on the tree and cider is poured around the roots and then there follows an almighty racket (pots and pans are banged and people shout) which is supposed both to awaken the tree and also chase away the evil spirits. The rationalisation behind the toast dipped in cider is that it attracts robins to the tree which gorge themselves on the bugs and insects that may disease the tree and its fruit. The robin can be identified as the good spirit and the unwelcome insects as the bad. The community then processes, accompanied by song and music, to the next orchard where, again, food and mulled cider are there to warm up the pilgrims and the ceremony happens again. A number of orchards are visited and similar feasts await – fuelled by refreshments, the joy of the group visibly increases during the course of the evening.
Carhampton (some ten miles from Porlock and close to Minehead) holds similar celebrations on 17th January, which is Twelfth Night according to the older Julian Calendar where Christmas is celebrated on 6th January. There was not a Mummers’ Play in Carhampton but there were Morris dancers and the noise to awaken the trees and chase away the evil spirits was amplified by farmers firing off their shot-guns. Carhampton has played a significant role in the revival of the wassail. In the 1970s and 1980s it attracted media and international attention and in recent years its focus has been in the Community Orchard with its unique collection of fruit trees. Leaving the Community Orchard, the procession moves to the grounds of the local pub, the Butchers’ Arms, where folk tales and poetry about wassailing are shared.
In feudal times Wassailing people was prevalent: it involved a mutual exchange of gifts between peasants and lords. The peasants went from door to door wishing their lords a Merry Christmas and receiving gifts in exchange. ‘Here we come a-wassailing’ was written around this practice as this verse shows:
Good master and good mistress,
As you sit by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.
So, what draws people away from their televisions, superfast broadband (yes, even in Somerset villages) and warm fires on a cold, frosty evening to visit the local orchards? Is this revival of an ancient custom simply nostalgic romanticism or is something else going on? What can be learnt from a custom which is becoming more widespread and popular and appears in unexpected places – at the Porlock Wassail, a couple on holiday told me that wassailing ceremonies take place in their home country of Australia? Here are four reflections on the ceremonies themselves and then I draw out some wider questions for society and church.
Reflections on Wassailing
1. Wassailing, with its music, drama, singing and dancing, is a community celebration which people enjoy whether or not they attend church. Wassail songs are similar in form to medieval carols and medieval carols, rooted in dance, are folk songs shared and enjoyed by church and wider community.
2. The wassail ceremony touches chords deep within the human psyche and culture. In encouraging the tree to produce abundantly, the community is conducting a fertility rite. In making a lot of noise to chase away the evil spirits, the community is engaging in the apocalyptic battle of good against evil, of light against darkness. This is highlighted in the Porlock ceremony where the wassailing is preceded by the Mummers’ Play which focuses on the battle between St. George and his evil enemy. It would not have been lost upon our forebears that the date of the wassails is close to the winter solstice when, in the northern hemisphere, daylight increases and darkness recedes.
3. The wassail song produced below with its reference to ‘the Lord’ indicates the influence of Christianity in the ceremony. Wassailing the tree is, in effect, blessing the tree. With the introduction of the Mummers’ Play, the battle of good against evil, and of light against darkness where the good ultimately prevails is given a stronger Christian emphasis. Furthermore, wassailing falls within the Christmas festivities, highlighting again the natural relationship between church and community.
4. The wassail ceremonies as a whole reveal a warm, even tender, relationship of mutuality with creation. The apple tree was decorated, serenaded and respected. Even at a time when foods could easily be bought from the local supermarket, the ceremony gave the impression that the community’s well-being depended upon a good apple crop. As society is becoming more aware of the need to change its relationship with creation, wassail ceremonies are embodiments of a different way of relating.
Wider questions for Society and Church
The increasing popularity in wassailing and other similar ceremonies points to a desire to rediscover and reconnect with our cultural roots. Our fast-moving, digitally dominated society brings many blessings, but the downside is that we lose touch with our roots and identities whose loss we discover when confronted with ultimate questions of life and death and good and evil. On such occasions questions are asked indicating a search for meaning. It is no coincidence that programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and the recently released Star Wars focusing on life and death and good and evil capture the public imagination. Culture is the discipline where these issues are acknowledged as of fundamental importance in a society’s self-understanding and well-being. Story-telling, music and song, art and ritual are the media through which insights and struggles are communicated within culture.
At their best, religion in general and the Church in particular have traditionally provided space for communities and people to discover, rediscover and cherish their identities and search for meaning. The stories and experiences of the Christian faith interwoven with the stories and experiences of the local community have sustained people facing the ultimate questions of life. The Church provides ritual and meaning. But this relationship is fraying. While many churches rightly go to great lengths to engage with society and its needs, there is less focus on engaging with those deeper streams of culture which can be a particular challenge in multi-faith and multi-cultural communities. There are fewer baptisms, marriages and funerals taken through the Church than ever before. It is at this level that churches need to work – and well attended ceremonies like wassails are indications that there is a deep thirst for such engagement.
“Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear:
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
To bloom well, and to bear well,
So merry let us be:
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout to the old apple tree:
‘Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear,
Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagfulls
And a little heap under the stairs.’
Three cheers for the old apple tree:Hip, Hip, Hooray!”