Wassailing: An Ancient English Tradition Honoring Apple Trees
There was a certain element of folk magic to wassailing, an ancient English tradition that sounds straight out of Middle Earth. When the druid arrived dressed in his white gown, when the women wore crowns of winter foliage and flowers, when Morris dancers opened the march with fire torches, I started wondering: is this happening? Am I in the right century? And then, it dawned on me that I was stepping into another world, a world steeped in ancient tree lore passed over centuries. Where I better keep an open mind because on a dark winter night, who knows where the boundaries between real and spirit world really lie.
This was my first wassail. “Waes hael”is a phrase in Old English and Old Norse meaning “be healthy.” Waes hael!
The celebration started with a dance, a dance neither my daughter, nor her friend, nor I saw, because our train took its own sweet time from Victoria Station in London. By the time we reached the Old House, a 14th century whitewashed building turned into a pub, joyous revelers were standing outside on the streets of Dorking, Surrey. Immediately, they formed a parade on the sidewalk and started walking away, so we followed suit promptly.
We may have missed a dance, but we were not missing the wassail.
On this January Saturday, a procession of fifty souls was led by men in long colorful robes holding staffs, up city streets, over a winding dirt and gravel lane, all the way to the bottom of a hill with a country orchard.
Give way, give way, ye gates, and win
An easy blessing to your bin
And basket, by our entering in.The Wassail, Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)
Through the Gate
Carried by the flow of people, we followed and saw other groups join the crowd, all of them eager to do their part in this crop-blessing wassail. I knew that this midwinter folklore ceremony, usually held in apple-producing counties, involved singing, dancing and other folk customs. I had no idea what or who or how, and still don’t know much more than what I saw with my own eyes, but it was special.
By the entrance of the orchard, we all gathered and waited. A woman waved to a man in a flowery velvet long coat to join their small group of four. They were Morris dancers, some of them wearing black makeup around the eyes. The origin of the (now controversial) tradition dates back to the 16th century when black paint was used by farm workers as a disguise while begging in the winter, which was illegal.
By the chicken-wire gate, wise old men and women–or so they seemed–watched on with anticipation. I was fascinated by one man in particular, whose wooden staff ended in a ram’s horn. I was to learn later that he was the Green Man, one of the masters of ceremony.
One by one, the four members of the Box Hill Bedlam Morris group lit their torches and, the contour of their eyes charcoal black or mossy green, ceremoniously marched through the chicken-wire gate.
Walking up the central aisle of a community garden, we tip-toed around muddy paddles and tufts of grass to reach the actual gate to the orchard, bending under an arch of crossed staffs blessing our arrival.
Apple Rituals and Morris Dancing
Inside the orchard, the first thing we saw was a tall oak tree towering, at a safe distance, over a giant bonfire in an open glade. The scene was set. Tree, fire, music, people, and all our collective blessings.
Glancing over the crowd, now two hundred strong at least, I spotted white tents with refreshments up the hill so we got into a long snaking line of thirsty revelers. Spiced apple juice! Spice cider! Ale! Hand-written signs promised local drinks made for the occasion. Luckily, we were far down the line and perfectly positioned for the next part of the wassailing.
Fiddle, base and drums started to play. Four Morris dancers stood in square formation, looking inward and holding wooden sticks in their hands. Stamping their feet, they started their choreographed dance to a lively tune under the big oak tree, all of us taking in the joyous celebration.
A few more dances followed, as we moved up the line to the spiced apple juice, spiced apple cider, and marshmallows skewered on long apple tree branches.
Bonfire & Fire Ritual
With drinks and marshmallows in hand, we got close to the warmth of the bonfire, roasting our front side as our backs slowly got colder, then turning around like rotisserie chickens to expose our cold backs and cool off the now-toasty front.
When the Morris dancers stopped, most people had been able to get a drink or had gathered in groups, and a wide circle had naturally formed around the bonfire. It was time. Time for the fire ritual.
An older man in white long dress, the druid, spoke first, followed by the Green Man. At their side, a woman wearing a crown of winter foliage – the Wassail queen – entoned a litany while going around the fire.
Earth my body,
water my blood,
air my breath,
fire my spirit.Traditional chant to the elements
Said the Green man, “Waes hael!”
Facing each of the four cardinal points, four officiants took turns reading blessings to four different trees, each particular tree chosen for its symbolism:
- Apple tree (love and healing magic),
- cherry tree (fertility),
- holly (death and rebirth of winter), and
- rowan (protection against witches and evil spirits).
After each blessing, the Wassail Queen litany was sung and picked up by everybody in the crowd.
Said the Green man, “Waes hael!”
Everybody cheered on, repeating “Waes hael!’ It was fascinating to observe how quickly we all became part of a ritual many of us were new to.
Toast and Cider
To materialize the blessing ceremony, a bowl of hard cider was brought along with a basket of toasted bread, and children in the audience were invited to come and dip toasts in the cider before hanging it from apple tree branches.
The symbolism of this toast and cider act was not obvious at first, so I walked over to the druid and asked. Good thing I did too, as most children had had a turn and I was offered a piece of toast to dip and hang in a tree.
Bread, in this instance, might have represented the harvest but it also served a practical purpose. Toast hung in the trees was said to attract the robins – good spirits who help the trees grow, peck on undesirable insects and help fruits develop.
Morris dancing and choir under an oak tree by a full moon, is there anything more suited to wishing well an apple orchard?
After the prayers, the crowd somewhat dispersed, busy hanging bread on apple trees, grabbing more drinks, regrouping in smaller units or wandering around the orchard in total darkness, save for floodlights in the oak tree and by the white tents. Organically, people were sticking around to enjoy the evening.
Accordions, flute and fiddle accompanied more Morris dancing, with a dancer wearing an intriguing head of a raven. I wished I knew the meaning of this disguise, as he was the only animal representation in the group. On the Welsh borders, dancers perform under character names such as Raven and Death’s Head Hawkmoth for a darker, more gothic type of Morris dancing. Could they be connected somehow?
Later, choristers serenaded us with the audience creating a circle around them, listening to the songs in the night. Even if we didn’t know anybody in the crowd, even if we didn’t know the meaning of the rituals we witnessed, this felt like a wonderful shared moment with the local community, a back-to-basics way of celebrating nature outside of digital screens and contrived environments.
Music brought a perfect ending to an apple orchard evening, the sound of voices carried away in the darkness as we retraced our steps through the community garden and back to the train station.