Wassailing was once a mid-winter folk custom found all across the British Isles. Today it still survives as a living tradition in some rural communities (particularly here in the West County), and it is currently enjoying a contemporary revival in numerous others.
There are two distinct forms of wassailing: door-to-door or under the trees. The first takes place in the run-up to Christmas and is related to the custom of carolling: wassailers go house to house singing wassail songs, collecting coins, drink, or food in their wassail bowls. The second kind of wassail generally happens some time in January and involves the "waking" and blessing of apple trees to ensure a good harvest in the year ahead. These ceremonies can be simple or lavish, taking place by day or by night, sober and family-friendly or drunken and raucous. What they share in common are traditional wassail songs and stories, the custom of leaving toast in the trees (a gift for the robins or spirits) and blessing the roots with last year's apple juice or cider, and making noise (with drums, or guns, or pots-and-pans) to wake the trees and call back the sun. To learn more, read Jude Roger's recent article on wassailing in The Guardian, or see The Tradfolk Wassail Directory on the Tradfolk website.
Here in Chagford, our wassail in mid-January was a daylight affair under the apple trees of a community field, full of stories and songs and children blessing the trees with juice from the wassail cup. Down the road, in the village of Lustleigh, was a wilder wassail gathering by the light of the moon, with black-clad Border Morris dancers waking the trees their sticks and their cries and their pounding feet. I love both kinds of wassailing, dark and bright: celebrating the seasons, nature's bounty, and the bonds of community.
The video above looks at the history of wassailing and other winter folk rituals -- filmed by BBC Bristol in 1977, and featuring music by the Albion Band.
Below is a Cornish variant of a well-known wassail song performed by Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans, Hazel Askew), with Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith. It's from Awake Arise: A Winter Album (2019).
Above: "The Apple Tree Man" performed by John Kirkpatrick with Rosie Cross, Georgina Le Faux, Michael Gregory, Jane Threlfall, and Carl Hogsden, on their album Wassail!: A Celebration of an English Midwinter (1998).
Below: "The Gloucestershire Wassail" performed by Magpie Lane on their album Wassail!: A Country Christmas (2009).
Above: "Homeless Wassail," a contemporary wassail by the Canadian trio Finest Kind (Ian Robb, Ann Downey, and Shelley Posen). The song can be found on Robb's album Music for a Winter's Eve (2012).
Below: "Sugar Wassail" performed the great Waterson-Carthy band (Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, and their daughter Eliza Carthy, with Tim van Eyken), from Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (2006). It's poignant to listen to their music right now after the death of Norma a week ago, at the age of 82. This legendary singer (and legendary family) shaped the field of English folk music as we know it today and her loss has broken hearts all around the world, including mine.
One more video to end with: a short clip of Beltane Border, our local Border Morris side, performing at a wassil celebration at The Old Chuch House Inn at Torbyran. We are so lucky to have this group on Dartmoor, keeping the seasons turning....
Imagery above: a drawing of the Apple-Tree-Man by Alan Lee, two photographs from Chagford's wassail: storytelling and children blessing the trees, and morris dancing by Dartmoor's Beltane Border.