23 December, 2009

Here We Come A-Wassailing

Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring, 
As you do give them Wassailing.

Each solstice since we've been in The Box House (this is our third) we have wassailed the garden, whereby we drink a toast to the health of the fruit-bearing trees and sing to them so that they may produce abundant harvests the next year. The tune of choice, of course, is "Here We Come A-Wassailing." We then splash a bit of whatever brew we're drinking on the trees themselves, shouting Wes hāl ("be merry" or "good health"). Some years it's actual wassail punch, a type of hot spiked cider, this year it was a bottle of pumpkin spice liquor. (I wonder what our neighbors thought of all the orange snow.) It's our twist on an old custom from the cider-producing regions of England. We have a small collection of dwarf cherry trees we planted our first spring, as well as peaches, plums, and apples, but the whole garden gets blessed. This past fall, we had planted over fifty new shrubs, so there was a lot of toasting to be done.

According to Wikipedia:

The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn. The ceremonies of each wassail varies from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen to lead the proceedings, and song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next, the wassail Queen will be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she will place toast that has been soaked in Wassail from the Clayen Cup as a gift the tree spirits and to show them the fruits of what they created the previous year. Then an incantation is usually recited such as

"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!"

Then the assembled crowd will sing and shout and bang drums and pots and  pans and generally make a terrible racket until the gunsmen give a great final volley through the branches to make sure the work is done and then off to the next orchard. Perhaps unbeknown to the general public, this ancient English tradition is still very much thriving today. The West Country is the most famous and largest cider producing region of the country and some of the most important wassails are held annually in Carhampton (Somerset) and Whimple (Devon), both on 17 January (old Twelfth Night).

I added the links above so that you can see pictures from two different wassailing ceremonies.

Here are a few more traditional rhymes:

Here's to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel—bushel—sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza! — South Hams of Devon, 1871

Huzza, Huzza, in our good town
The bread shall be white, and the liquor be brown
So here my old fellow I drink to thee
And the very health of each other tree.
Well may ye blow, well may ye bear
Blossom and fruit both apple and pear.
So that every bough and every twig
May bend with a burden both fair and big
May ye bear us and yield us fruit such a stors
That the bags and chambers and house run o'er. — Cornworthy, Devon, 1805

Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray the God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big.
Every bough, apples now. — 19th century Sussex, Surrey

Apple-tree, apple-tree,
Bear good fruit,
Or down with your top
And up with your root. — 19th century S. Hams.

Bud well, bear well
God send you fare well;
Every sprig and every spray
A bushel of apples next New Year Day. — 19th century Worcestershire

Here we come a wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wandering
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. — Somerset, 1871


modernemama said...

This year is the first Solstice we haven't celebrated by lighting the Yule log and welcoming friends with spiced drinks - too much snow, too many projects. We may have to make it up at Summer solstice instead

Kate H. said...

I didn't wassail my flowering quince bush last year, but by God's grace, it gave me a bumper crop this year and many jars of jelly and quince cheese!

Your songs remind me of the Shira Kammen album "Castle of the Holly King," which you can find on Magnatune.com. It's a favorite of mine, and think you'd like it a lot. :-) http://magnatune.com/artists/albums/shira-castle/

Joanne said...

modernemama--Great idea! What will your Summer Solstice drink be?

Kate--Thanks for the link; I'll be sure to check it out. :-)