Wassail

literally means good health, and is a word of Saxon origin. The legend has it that when Vortigern, prince of the Silures, fell in love with Rowena, the niece of Hengist, she presented him with a bowl of spiced wine, saying, "Waes Heal, Hlaford Cyning" (Be of health, Lord King). Vortigern married her, and his kingdom was conceded to the Saxons. Since then Waeshael became the name of the drinking cups of the Anglo-Saxons (Howells). The wassail bowl, though, has a more special significance, something like a punchbowl, but the original idea of spiced wine is retained. The proper drink to use as a wassail is Lamb's Wool, spiced ale with roasted apples in it, and the proper time to drink it is the eve of Twelfth Day, or Twelfth Night.

But wassailing is a much more important custom than just drinking lamb's wool. Quite a lot of Hallowe'en (i.e., Celtic new year) customs have been absorbed into those of Twelfth Night. Apple wassailing, or apple howling, as it is sometimes called, is one of them (Hull). Wassailers were known as howlers in Sussex (Sawyer). The purpose of the custom is set out in Tusser's rhyme:

Wassail the trees, that they may bear You many a plum and many a pear; For more or less fruit they will bring As you do them wassailing.

The whole object of the wassail ceremony is to make the trees bear fruit, and a lot of it. There was nearly always a rhyme or song to be sung, the best known of which is:

Here's to thee, old apple tree;

Whence you may bud, and whence you may blow.

And whence you may bear apples enow.

Hats full, caps full

Bushel-bushel sacks full

And my pockets full, too (Brand).

In Devonshire, if the parson happened to be popular, the line "Old parson's breeches full", was added.

In the area of east Cornwall and west Devonshire, the custom was to take a milkpanful of cider, into which roasted apples had been chopped, usually to pour over the roots of apple trees (Weston), but sometimes taken and put as near as possible in the centre of the orchard. It was important that everyone partook. The children were brought out, so were the sick and invalids. If anyone were missing, the charm would not be effective (Whitlock. 1977). Everyone would take a cup of the drink, and each went to a separate tree, saying the ritual:

Health to the good apple tree, Well to bear, pocketsful, hatfuls, Peckfuls, bushel-bagfuls.

Part of the cupful of cider was drunk as a health to the tree, but the rest was thrown at it (Hunt). Sometimes cider-soaked bits of toast and sugar were put in the branches (Farrer). Note that the cider is thrown at the tree. Guns were actually fired into the branches. It is as if they threaten the tree, a "let-this-be-a-warning" series of shots to bolster up the entreaties. The Sussex custom was apparently for a youth to climb the tree, seemingly the object of the firing, though of course care was taken not to hit him (Weston). Where this occurs the original intention was for him to answer for the tree. But these threats were certainly confined to the English cider producing areas. The Santals, in India, always shot arrows into the "Sal Tree", a sacred tree to them (Biswas). The ordinary way to treat a walnut tree to make it bear a good crop was to beat it. As the outrageously politically incorrect rhyme has it:

A woman, a spaniel, and a walnut tree,

The more you whip them, the better they be

(Halliwell. 1869).

There are very similar practices recorded in both French and Japanese folklore.There is some rationalisation in all this. It is claimed that the shock and smoke of gun-firing had a practical purpose, and tended to dislodge insects, so that the birds could get them. Or, the shot would tear the bark in places, and so quicken budding (Minchinton).

A Somerset variant of the apple wassailing custom is to take the lowest branches of the apple tree and pull them down and dip them in cider. When this is done, everybody bows three times. Then they raise themselves from the third bow as if with great effort, miming the bearing of a heavy load (Wilks). This, of course, is sympathetic magic, like jumping high in the air to show the corn how high you want it to grow.

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