Strongly associated with the west country counties of Dorset, Devon and Somerset, also Herefordshire
and Gloucestershire, but also with SE England.
January 5th or 17th ('12th Night') and other dates, some in December.
A very large number of annual wassailing events now take place and include:
The Butcher's Arms pub & Community Orchard, Carhampton
The Butcher's Arms pub is renowned for having kept the tradition of wassailing alive for centuries. Though only a few apple trees now remain in its garden, they remain the focus of an annual celebration, that now attracts large numbers of people.
'There is a Wassail at the Community Orchard first then another crowd gathers in the orchard next to the pub, around the Old Apple Tree; toast soaked in cider is put in the branches for the robins at both events while cider is poured over its roots, all to encourage the tree to produce a good crop the following harvest. Wassailing carols are sung, shotguns are fired to awaken the tree spirits, a bonfire is lit and a good time is had by all.'
Numerous other events around the country include, in Somerset, those held at Avalon Orchard Glastonbury Tor, and the Frieze Hill Community Orchard, Taunton;
in Devon at Sandford village near Crediton and at Stoke Gabriel near Totnes;
in Dorset at Liberty Fields, near Yeovil and at
Bridport Community Orchard, Bridport.
In Sussex, Bolney Apple Howling takes place at Old Mill Farm, Bolney on the first Saturday in January.
Now generally associated only with apple orchards, wassailing is a very ancient English drinking ritual believed to have its roots in Celtic ceremonies traditionally performed in the depths of winter to give thanks to the gods associated with vegetation and fertility, to ensure that crops and animals would be bountiful and to welcome in the coming year.
Before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 accounts from the 17th C, suggest that Old Twelfth Night, 17th January, was regarded as the traditional date for wassailing, but events were also held on other days in January or during December.
A wassail bowl - traditionally made of carved wood and filled with an alcoholic mixture likely to comprise hot cider, or ale, spices, sugar and roasted crab apples - might be taken from house to house for the purpose of drinking a toast to the good health of the household, including its crops and domestic animals, such as oxen, too.
The wassailing of fruit orchards, to bless their trees, ward off disease and help ensure a good harvest of fruit for the coming year was widely considered essential if disaster was to be avoided.
The ritual is most closely associated with the cider-producing counties of South West and South East England, where orchards and cider-making formed part of the fabric of daily life.
With the recent revival of interest in orchards, especially community orchards throughout Britain and in cider making, many ‘wassailing’ ceremonies are being re-enacted once more.
THE ORCHARD RITUAL
Today's celebrations vary from place to place, but generally involve gathering in an orchard after dusk, a torchlight procession, bonfires, 'blessing' a tree, making an offering, singing a wassailing carol, the scaring away of 'bad spirits' with music and/or the clattering of pots and pans and drinking the health of the trees. Story-telling, Mummers plays involving 'The Lord of Misrule' and Morris dancing are also often included. These events can attract large numbers of people from a wide area.
In the past, local people would walk to their own orchard, or a team of men and boys, who had started off at the local pub, would visit local orchards and ask if the owner wanted his trees ‘wassailed’. Bringing cider with them, sometimes with roasted apples added, they would gather round the largest or most prolific tree, regarded as the guardian of the orchard and sometimes referred to as the ‘Apple Tree Man’. Sometimes a man or woman dressed as a ‘King’ or ‘Queen’ would lead the song or the processional music before being lifted up to place cider-soaked toast in this tree. Cider might also be sprinkled onto the branches, (and these might be dipped into the cider as if to drink) or tipped around the roots.
To drive away evil spirits and awaken the trees for the coming Spring, cow horns were blown, trays or buckets were beaten and a shotgun might be fired into the upper branches. In Sussex, the custom was known as ‘apple howling’. After the ceremony much drinking and merry-making took place.
See: Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, a history of the ritual year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 2001
A traditional wassailing song, as sung in the West Country:
‘Here’s to thee, old apple tree
May’st thou bud, may’st thou blow
May’st thou bear apples enow.
Hats full, Caps full,
And my pockets full, too
Mid Winter Festivals
Samhain was the Celtic festival which marked the end of summer. At this time it was believed that the vegetation gods retreated underground and that the doors between that world and this were not quite closed. Rituals of thanksgiving and divination were performed during the festival in which apples played an important part. In ancient Celtic stories, apples were linked with paradise and immortality, and seen as the source of everlasting youth. During the Samhain festival apples might be buried in the earth to feed the souls of ancestors as they made their way between the two worlds. Apples and nuts were also roasted in a sacred fire and alcoholic drinks of apples and ale were served.
The Celts and ancient northern European peoples revered the apple, as did the Romans for whom it was a symbol of abundance and fertility. Pomona was the Roman goddess of orchards and the harvest, and a festival dedicated to her was celebrated at the beginning of November.
These feasts were both taken over by the Christian church (as the feast of All Souls and All Saints) and became Halloween.
Ref: Morgan, J.,The New Book of Apples, Ebury Press, 2002
Fermented apple drinks were made by the Celts in antiquity from native crab apples and also by the Romans, who brought cultivated apple varieties with them to Britain.
The British enthusiasm for cider however is attributed to the arrival of the Normans in the 11th C as cider became the most popular drink after ale at this time and was used to pay tithes and rents. During the Middle Ages most of the apples grown in Europe were used for cider making.
A boost to cider production and the provision of fruit for eating, occurred in the late 1600s when farmers, landowners and smallholders turned to fruit trees as a source of income, and planted large numbers of orchards. This regional pattern of commercial apple growing was to last until the end of the 19thC and lay the foundations of the West Country’s famous cider industry. By 1667, cider had become the national drink and orchards and cider production, especially in the West Country, the West Midlands and Shropshire and neighbouring counties, created a farming pattern that shaped English rural life. In the 18thC a cider allowance became part of a farm worker’s wages.
Kings Favourite, Golden Bittersweet, Buttery Dors, Tom Putts, Sweet Coppin, Fillbarrel, Warrior, and Yeovil Sour are just a few of the apple varieties once commonly found in the cider apple orchards of the West Country. Their fascinating names suggest the range of flavours and characteristics – generally classed as either sharp and bitter, or bittersweet – that distinguish them and the cider they produce.
Recent years have seen a revival of interest in the production of ciders in Britain and enthusiasts have been searching out old varieties as well as planting new orchards.
See: Morgan, J.,The New Book of Apples, Ebury Press, 2002
Wassailing at Quiet Corner Farm, Henstridge, Somerset, UK
SAVING THE HOME OF APPLE ANCESTORS
Britain boasts an extraordinary array of apples - one of the most widely consumed, most highly-rated nutritionally and most economically important fruit in the world (1). The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent – the home of the world’s largest fruit collection growing on one site - holds some 2,131 varieties. (2)
Like many fruit however, the apple doesn't breed true from seed - when a pip is sown it won't develop into a tree that is the same as the one that produced it. To ensure continuity, most apple varieties need to be grafted.
The ancient ancestry of the cultivated apple (Malus domestica, the genome of which was sequenced in 2010) is highly complex. All our cultivated varieties are now known to be descended from the wild apple (M. sieversii) native to the ancient forests of Central Asia, in particular Kazakhstan and the region of Xinjiang, in China. It is thought that as M. sieversii (which shows huge variety in terms of the type, size and colour of the apples it produces) migrated westward from the forests of central Asia along the famous trade route, the Silk Road, to the Middle East and then on to Europe, it gradually evolved, with the ‘hybrid infiltration’ of two other species, the crab apple M.sylvestris (native to an area that stretches from Britain to northern Turkey) and M.orientalis (native to the Caucasus) into the fruit we recognize today. (3)
The belt of ancient forests extending also across Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan is the home not just of ancestral wild apples species, but of over 300 other wild fruit and nut species, including apricots, cherries, plums and walnuts, from which domesticated varieties are believed to be descended.
In recent decades however, an estimated 90% of this bountiful forest – described by the Russian geneticist Nicolai Vavilov in the 1920s as ‘the Garden of Paradise’ (4) - has been destroyed by human development, over-grazing, pests and diseases, and by fires, resulting in the threat, to many species, of extinction.
A number of efforts have been made in recent years both to help protect these forests and encourage their sustainable use locally, and to safeguard individual threatened species. (5)
As a result of their long isolation and distribution in the mountainous and fragmented landscape in which they are found, the genetic diversity of these wild fruit trees is very high. Scientists are particularly concerned to protect them as their genes could be of importance in the breeding of new climate-tolerant or disease-resistant varieties of the fruits, including apples, grown today on a vast commercial scale which now face serious problems because of their lack of genetic vigour – the result of the in-breeding that has characterized their domestication.
1. Wang, N., Jiang, S., Zhang, Z. et al. Malus sieversii: the origin, flavonoid synthesis mechanism, and breeding of red-skinned and red-fleshed apples. Hortic Res 5, 70 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41438-018-0084-4
3. Wang. et al., op cit.
4. J. Morgan, The New Book of Apples, Ebury Press, 2002, p.9.
5. See for example:
The Crop Wild Relatives Project: https://www.cwrdiversity.org/
M McCarthy, Death in the Orchard of Eden, The Independent, 8 May 2009.
It was the fabulous walled orchard gardens – the ‘pairidaeza’ - created by the ancient Persians (from 512 BC), planted not just for their delicious, prolific fruits of many different kinds, but for the beauty and fragrance of their blossoms and their shade, that gave rise to our word for and concept of paradise.
Inspired by these gardens, the Greek essayist and historian Xenophon (354 - 430 BC) created a similar pleasure garden in his home land and gave a new word to the Greek language.
The transliteration of the Persian term became the Roman ‘paradisus’ and this in turn became the English word ‘paradise’.
Ref: Morgan, J.,The New Book of Apples, Ebury Press, 2002, p.13.
Until the Second World War – when many were dug up to make way for agriculture – orchards were a common sight in England’s West Country. Sadly, this process continued in the 1960s when Government grants encouraged their destruction to make way for cereal production. In more recent times, the inexorable expansion of towns and villages to make way for housing, has also contributed to the demise of orchards, often containing ancient apple trees.
A huge recent revival of popular interest in apples, particularly in England however, has seen many new orchards planted and attempts made to record and safeguard ancient apple varieties across the country.