Wassailling in Brandon Marsh


“Apple trees, toast, singing, dancing and making a heck of a row. Not forgetting the cider……aaaah the cider!”
“Cider – now that makes sense…”

The highlight of the weekend, but not all that it may seem. The confused tone in my youngest’s voice seem to say it all. She is not ‘into’ the customs and traditions of ‘Old England’ as me and my wife….we may, in fact, have been born out of time. Explanation needed?!!!

“Okay,” says I, “not long after the New Year we gather in an orchard and form a circle around one or more apple trees. The gathering folk may then hold hands and take in the words of the leader of the ceremony.” These words are sometimes simply read out or sung, but this year the Morris man simply orates these or similar lines:

Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee

And hoping thou wilt bear

The Lord does know where we shall be

To be merry another year.

To blow well and to bear well

And so merry let us be

Let every man drink up his cup

And health to the apple tree.

After this year’s chosen Morris man, in his flat cap and ragged coat, finishes the poem the merry dance begins. Still in the circle, right foot up and forward, move to the left. Easier said than done this dancing lark. Out of time, branches poking in ears, noses and other unmentionable places, ankles twisting in tussocky grass and near confusion verging on panic. But it’s not about the dancers, it’s about the trees and bringing back life.

These old apple trees need to wake up from their winter slumber and any evil spirits that are hiding in the orchard and the branches must be driven away. At the last step of the dance all living heck breaks loose. Some dancers grab heavy sticks they have found and beat and thrash the ground at their feet whilst hollering at the tops of their voices. Some of the more regular ‘wassailers’ come prepared with drums, maracas and other percussion instruments which they batter with all their might.

‘Wake up tree! Bugger off you bad spirits!’

In some parts of England, especially in the old West Country, folks will bring shotguns and will blast above the trees to rid the orchards of any unwanted supernatural entities. This often takes place at night where a large fire is also blazing, letting the good ghosts and spirits of the old ways see that traditions are still being kept alive.

From between the legs of the revellers the bucket appears along with a bag of toast. Fingers clammer for the toast, dunking the bread in the bucket of cider and then being hung all over the tree. Sodden, cider smelling toast hanging from twigs and knobbles on the trees. But why? Well, as all the bad spirits have been driven away we had better entice the good spirits back to help us with a bountiful harvest…..we can’t run low on the cider! Speaking of cider…..

Another Morris man, who has brew his own, distributes it throughout the crowd. The first mouthful and every face screws up tight and an involuntary shudder throws everybody into spasm. Hells bells that’s sour….but strangely good and very effective. Another sip and share the glass; must let the others ‘enjoy’ the libation. But the master cider maker is a crafty bugger. His own bottle and tankard are full (well, was full) of an older brewing which is sweeter than an angel’s fart and devilishly more potent! (I did manage to snaffle a good mouthful off the old chap – thank you sir!)

But hold on! No guzzling the whole glass. We must bless the apple tree with an offering from a previous crop and finish the glass by pouring the remainder onto the base and roots of the tree.

So there you go. That is our local tree wassail done for another year. To be repeated again and again to never lose tradition.

Wassail……so what does it mean?
It comes from Old Norse with a bit of Anglo Saxon and means ‘Good Health’.
Good health to the apple trees, all trees, to nature, to all.
May the wheel of the year turn into spring and bring ‘good health’ to you all.

Written by Mark Elson for www.pipistrelleart.co.uk