"Wassail!" a drinking salutation from Pagan Europe was part of the English language before 1066. But what is the custom of "Wassailing"?
We trace its development from Medieval origins, when the Norse "Waes Hael!" ("Be healthy!") rang through courtly celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas, using ornate Wassail Bowls brimming with spiced drinks. From this came visiting and begging customs blessing houses and people, farms, animals and crops, and the ‘apple tree wassailing’ we know today.
By the mid twentieth century wassailing had declined and nearly vanished. Then a handful of ‘Wassail’ songs led folk enthusiasts to reawaken the ancient custom, researching it and with cider enthusiasts returning it to its heartlands of Devon & Somerset; Herefordshire, Gloucestershire & Worcestershire and Kent & Sussex. Since the millennium, ecology and sustainable food ideas have led to community orchards springing up, making wassailing part of their annual tree management cycle, until it has blossomed even in our cities, becoming widespread, with over 200 Wassails in 2013 and many more private ceremonies.
Wassails have a central core of activity based on the past, to spiritually encourage the trees to produce more fruit. This includes noise, processions, gifts to the trees and much drinking. Everyone does it differently, adapting the old ways with camaraderie and good fellowship.
Included in these pages are many wassail songs, the recipes for wassail drinks and cakes, but most fascinating of all, accounts by the very people who are intimately involved in the reawakening and organising of wassails all over the country.