Wassailing has ancient roots in Britain, but in the 21st century it’s fun to learn about this tradition and create our own version of this old custom. Therefore on Sunday 15th of January we are holding our own Wassail in Rowntree Park, just before it starts to get dark. We aren’t wassailing ‘experts’, or pagans, but we want to embrace some of this tradition, that is linked to celebrating nature, whilst having a good time with the local community!
Wassailing is all about celebrating apple trees and encouraging good future harvest. People go to the fruit trees to wish them health, make lots of noise, and give offerings in the form of food and drink.
What is wassailing?
There are some different definitions of Wassailing, but the one we are talking about here is ‘orchard wassailing’. A Wassail is the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and warding off evil spirits to help make sure of a successful harvest later in the year. It’s also about starting to return to ‘normality’ after the dark midwinter period.
The Term Wassail’ is said to come from the old English ‘ves heil’ which is a toast to your good health (be healthy). Wassailing originated as a Pagan tradition, but has evolved. No two wassails are the same. All over England there is some variety and difference in the Wassails, but the general purpose remains the same.
Wassailing is an old twelfth night tradition. Twelfth night is either the 5th of January, or if going by the old Gregorian calendar – 17th of January. However, today, Wassails tend to be held throughout January/early February. Before industrial times, the festive period was different to what we celebrate now. Advent was a time of fasting, was observed from the 1st to the 24th of December. Christmas would then last 12 days, ending with feasting and revels on the 5th of January – with wassailing a key part of the celebrations.
A wassail typically includes a visit to an orchard/local fruit trees. Some of the following may take place:
- A procession to get there and lots of singing of Wassail songs/chants and noise making.
- The procession may be led by a Wassail king and queen and the commotion is created by banging pots and pans, as well as shouting/singing, whistles and anything that makes noise!
- Some people dress up – this sometimes includes a use of nature, but also some as spirits or other things (more on this below).
- A warm spiced cider drink is also involved (recipes vary) – usually carried in a Wassail bowl and later shared out.
- Once at the fruit trees, you start with the oldest tree. Surrounding the tree some ‘wake up’ chants may be said as well as some praise for the tree (some like to bow to the tree). The custom continues by using large sticks to beat the trunk and the ground around the tree – this is the process of awakening the tree. Then lots of noise making again!
- It may be that a small child is lifted to add an ‘offering’ to the tree such as bread or cheese. This is followed by pieces of toasted bread soaked in the wassail drink and then stuck on branches of the tree and left there.
- Some of the drink is then poured on the roots of the tree (and may be drunk by the people involved too!) The toast is thought to encourage ’good spirits’ such as Robins – basically the birds will be pretty happy!
- You can then go and make noise and offerings to the other trees in the orchard too, and then have a warm drink!
- In some places there is music, Morris dancing and bonfires too.
Rowntree Park Wassail
Sunday 5th of February 2023
Sunday 5th of February is the new date we have for our Wassailing – we had to postpone from the 15th of January as the park flooded!
We have decided to ‘pick and choose’ from traditions to create our own. This main Wassailing event is for all ages and free to attend (donations are always welcome to our charity who help maintain and improve the park). Before the Wassail, we will have some activities for families that you can book into – there is a cost involved for these.
The wassail itself will start at 3pm and will probably last 30 minutes to an hour and involves a procession through the park to the orchard. Please dress for the weather and make sure you are warm! You are welcome to wear costume if you so wish or touches of dress up (more below).
Pre Wassail children’s activities – 1.30-2.45 approx
This is aimed at children 2-12 approximately. In this event you will have the opportunity to do the following:
- Create some ‘nature’ headwear
- Make some noise makers
- Hear the tale of the ‘Apple Man’
- Create some ‘blessings’, songs or poems for the apple trees.
Book your places here.
£3 a child members/£4 Non members
Wassail procession 3pm – meet at the amphitheatre area
- We will walk in procession, making a lot of noise, to the orchard (near the Millennium Bridge side of the park).
- We will gather around a tree together and offer some blessings/poems – then beat the ground around it with our sticks. Then make an offering of soaked toast to the tree.
- People can then choose trees in the orchard to make offerings to, make lots of noise and say poems/blessings/thank the tree if they so wish! Hopefully there may be some Wassail drink left over from the children’s event to share with others – you are also welcome to bring your own in a flask as we cannot guarantee.
- Don’t forget to visit the trees throughout the year to see how they are doing!
Wassailing can involve a variety of costume. However, what is most important is that you are dressed for the weather and are nice and warm! No costume is expected, but if people wish to dress up or add a ‘touch’ to their outfit, please do!
A Twelfth night tradition is ‘mumming’ which usually means wearing outlandish costume made of rags or foliage usually. Mumming involved a group of friends or family who dress in disguise and visit homes within their community during the twelve days of Christmas. If welcomed into a house, they often did a variety of informal performances that may include dance, music, jokes, or recitations. The hosts had to guess who they were behind the costumes.
For our Wassail, you are welcome to opt to ‘dress up’. This could include a mediaeval look, elements of the green man, apple man, sun god or any other spirit (use of nature in costumes). Dress anything apple themed, or a robin, green face paint or even dress in a superhero costume – anything works!
This is a fun low key community event organised by volunteers. The focus is on bringing people together, the sharing of a tradition, and also highlighting the orchard in our wildlife area of the park that our volunteers care for.
You are responsible for yourself, and children, during this event. As sticks are involved – please be aware of other people when waving or bashing! Our ‘Wassail drink’ will be non-alcoholic due to children being involved. You are welcome to bring your own flasks if you prefer to make your own Wassail drink! Please note that the park closes at 4pm in winter.
Children’s event – bring sticks, pans, a plastic bottle- and if possible a torch!
Other types of Wassailing
Another form the wassailing tradition took involved groups of revellers going from house to house to drink toasts and wish good health for the year ahead on the dwellers within. Indeed, the word ‘wassail’ is believed to be derived from the Old English ‘was hál’, meaning ‘be hale’ or ‘good health’.
Book your places for the children’s event here.