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Wassailing is an old Celtic tradition usually held on twelfth night. 'Wassail' derives from the Anglo-Saxon 'waes hael' meaning "be in good health".

Wassailing practices vary across the regions of England and Wales. Wassailing rituals can involve wishing good health for the new year for communities as well as plants and animals. There is a particularly strong tradition of wassailing in the orchards of cider-growing regions of the south-west from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset through to Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, the Gower, Pembrokeshire, Worcestershire and the Marches.

In these regions, wassailing involved visiting local orchards and fruit trees, singing songs, often also with banging pots and pans. In some regions, wassailers would hang cider-drenched bread on the fruit trees as offerings to tree spirits. In other regions, wassailers would splash cider on the branches of apple trees to annoint the trees. Wassailing also often involved communal sharing of cider or perry from a 'wassail bowl' mixed with spices, apple, and even egg and cream. All of these activities sought to please the spirits of the fruit trees, ward off bad energy and ensure bountiful crop of fruit in the year to come.

In Somerset, for example, wassailers would gather around the largest apple tree of the orchard, whom the fertility of the orchard was thought to reside. They would then pour cider or ale on the roots of the tree and cider-soaked bread in the branches for the robins - considered guardian spirits of the trees. Tips of the lowest branches were also drawn down and dipped in cider. Wassailers would sing:

"Old Apple tree, old apple tree;

We've come to wassail thee;

To bear and to bow apples enow;

Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;

Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs."

In some places, a wassail King and Queen led a processional from one orchard to the next. The wassail 'Queen' was lifted up into the boughs of the tree where cider-soaked bread was placed as a gift to the tree spirits, often with accompaniment of a wassail song such as this one:

Here's to thee, old apple tree, That blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An' all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah! .

In Glamorgan, wassailers would progress from house to house with greetings for health and prosperity, accompanied with spiced ale or cider in a wassail bowl carried by the travelling party and shared in cups. These are some examples of 'Wassail bowls' made in Wales, including at the Ewenny Pottery, South Wales. The first was made in around 1910 and has 17 handles (photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru). The second has the inscriptions:WIM Clay Pits 1833 and William James Tonyrevil Jany 12th 1832 (photo credit: Roger Jones). The third has 25 handles, dating 1850 also from the Ewenny Pottery, South Wales (photo credit: Antique Pottery).

Wassail cups were often made of turned wood - check out this incredible 'nest of cups'.

There are many regional wassailing songs including "Here We Come a-Wassailing", "Gloucestershire Wassail", and "Gower Wassail". Here are the lyrics of an ancient wassail song "Here we come a-wassailing":

"Here we come a-wassailing

Among the leaves so green;

Here we come a-wand'ring So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too;

And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year And God send you a Happy New Year.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door;

But we are neighbours' children, Whom you have seen before.

Call up the butler of this house, Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer, And better we shall sing.

We have got a little purse Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money To line it well within.

Bring us out a table And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese, And some of your Christmas loaf.

God bless the master of this house Likewise the mistress too,

And all the little children That round the table go.

Good master and good mistress, While you're sitting by the fire,

Pray think of us poor children Who are wandering in the mire."

Modern takes on wassailing songs have been rote large by Blur "The Wassailing Song" and Kate Bush in her song "Oh England, my Lionheart" which includes the lyrics "Give me one wish, and I'd be wassailing in the orchard, my English rose.". In Willesdon, there is an example of an urban take on the wassail.

Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night although some still wassail on "Old Twelvey Night", January 17, as it would have been before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar. You can find out more about Wassailing traditions here.

At Global Gardens, we are holding.a wassail on the 22nd January with storyteller Cath Little. Do join us if you would like to experience a wassail! Book a free ticket here.


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