At the time when many are taking down their Christmas decorations, groups of people will be gathering in orchards across the world for 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.
‘Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green’ and ‘Wassail, wassail, all over the town’ are 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. The tradition of wassailing, which has pre-christian roots, says something about society’s relationship with culture, can refresh the Church’s relationship with both community and culture and influence 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 both apple trees and people have been wassailed. In Porlock, West Somerset, the community gathers for its wassail celebrations on 5th January (Twelfth Night). The celebrations begin with food and drink (mulled cider) followed by a Mummers’ Play – an amateur folk drama depicting St. George’s fight over evil. Then follows a procession to an orchard where the oldest apple tree is laden with Christmas decorations and lights. Toast dipped in cider is hung on the branches and cider is poured around its roots. The toast attracts robins which gorge themselves on the bugs that may disease both tree and fruit. The robin personifies a good spirit and the unwelcome bugs a bad spirit. Then there is an almighty racket (people shout, whistle and bang pots and pans) to ‘awaken’ the tree from its winter sleep and chase away the evil spirits. The tree is ‘wassailed’ with a song (see below for the words). Doing everything possible for a healthy crop is particularly important for communities that depend upon apples for the local economy. Accompanied by song and music, the community then processes to the next orchard where the ceremony is repeated.
Nearby Carhampton also wassails its orchard. There is not a Mummers’ Play, but there are Morris dancers, who also have a role in chasing away evil. The awakening of the trees and chasing away the evil spirits are done by farmers firing off their shot-guns. Carhampton has played a significant role in the revival of the wassail attracting media and international attention in the 1970s and 1980s.
In feudal times the wassailing of 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 cold, frosty evenings to visit 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 last Porlock Wassail, a couple from Tasmania spoke about the wassailing ceremonies which take place there ? Here are three reflections on the ceremonies themselves and then I draw out some wider questions for society and church.
First, wassailing is a community celebration enjoyed by those who attend church and those who do not. Like many Christian festivals, it is a blending of Christian and pre-christian influences and traditions with which Christians can confidently engage. The wassailing song has obvious Christian influences. Wassailing is, effectively, blessing the tree. The Mummers’ Play brings St. George into the ceremony. Furthermore, wassailing falls within the Christmas festivities at Epiphany. By its very nature, wassailing has to be a pilgrimage around the community, but it needs a gathering place which could be the Church with welcoming refreshments and the Mummers’ play. This enables the Church to fulfil its calling of being a place of welcome for all in the community.
Secondly, the wassail ceremony touches chords deep within culture. In encouraging the tree to produce abundantly, the community is conducting a fertility rite. In chasing away the evil spirits, the community is engaging in the apocalyptic battle of good against evil, of light against darkness which is highlighted by the Mummers’ Play and the Morris Dancers. 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.
Thirdly, wassail ceremonies reveal a warm, even tender, relationship of mutuality with creation. The apple tree is serenaded and respected. Even at a time when foods could easily be bought from the local supermarket, the ceremony reminds the community that its well-being depends upon the fruit of the land. 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.
Finally, wassailing raises wider questions for society and church.
The increasing popularity of wassailing and other similar ceremonies such as Plough Sunday, Rogation and Lammastide, points to a desire to reconnect with cultural roots. While our digitally dominated society brings blessings, the danger is that we lose touch with the roots and identities which sustain us especially when we are confronted with ultimate questions of life and death, good and evil. Programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and Dynasties and the release (a year ago) of a new Starwars, capture the public imagination because they touch on these ultimate questions which have always emerged as cultural questions. Culture is what groupings of people make of the world materially, spiritually and intellectually and is drawn upon to feed a people’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 cultures.
The Christian faith has related to culture in a variety of ways ranging from turning its back on it, to embracing it uncritically. At its best, the Church provides space (geographical, intellectual and spiritual) and open doors for communities and people to grow, struggle and flourish. The stories and experiences of the Christian faith interwoven with those of the local community have sustained many facing the ultimate questions of life. Faith can provide both ritual and meaning. But while churches go to great lengths to engage with society and its needs, the relationship with culture is fraying. There are fewer baptisms, marriages and funerals taken through the Church than ever before. Many churches, some preoccupied with their own survival and others bulging at the seams, conduct their ecclesial life parallel to rather than together with the communities beyond their walls. It is with their relationship with cultures 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.’
Published in ‘Church Times’, 21/28 December, 2018.