When you “go a’wassailing,” you could be doing one of two things.
There’s the house-visiting wassail, which is the practice of singing carols door-to-door during the Christmas season.
The other type is the orchard-visiting variety. That’s Maria Kennedy’s bread and butter.
“I went to my first wassail at the Leominster Morris Wassail,” she says. She worked with cider makers in England as part of her studies in folklore at Indiana University.
“I showed up at this pub in the middle of nowhere in a little village in the north part of the county of Hertfordshire.” She was one of 300 people at that wassail. “They led us all out to the orchard, carrying torches and banging drums.”
And singing. The noisy procession into the orchard is meant to wake up the cider trees and scare away evil spirits.
“They poured some cider on the roots of the tree to give it back some of the juice it had produced,” she says. Some people even beat the trees with sticks. “Let’s encourage the fertility of the trees and encourage lots of apples for the next year.”
Wassailing Once Again
Wassails are traditionally held on either the evening of January 5 — Twelfth Night — or on January 17, which is the date of Old Twelfth Night, before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.
Kennedy helped revive the wassailing tradition on Broome Farm in Hertfordshire when she was there in 2012.
In addition to the singing and noise-making and general merriment, “We built twelve little fires around the biggest apple tree. The twelve fires are said to represent either the twelve months of the year or the twelve apostles. Then you build a thirteenth fire, which is the Judas fire.” Revelers are supposed to stamp out the Judas fire.
Good Excuse For A Party
It’s hard to know how long people have been wassailing, but it likely originated long before Christianity came to Britain — since 600 A.D. Kennedy says it was traditionally done by agricultural laborers.
“It’s kind of like a contract almost,” she says. “The laborers are saying, If you treat us well and give us stuff to eat — both symbolically and actually. They’re going to give you some cakes and things to eat tonight, and hopefully for the rest of the year, you’re going to pay us well and be a good employer. In exchange, we’re going to sing to your trees and make sure they bear a lot of fruit.”
Then it’s back to the fields the following week for what’s called Plow Monday.
These days, Kennedy says wassailing as a good excuse for a party before the work starts up again.
“You have to think like it’s really dark in England in the middle of winter,” she says. “It’s rainy and it’s cold and it’s really dark all the time. And then you get to get together with a group of people and light some torches and go out in the orchard and sing some songs and bang some pots and drink a lot of cider. It’s a good thing.”