Here We Come A-Wassailing... around Devon!
By ExeCellent | Thursday, January 03, 2013, 15:00
WITH CIDER as our local drink, it's not surprising that we Devonians have a special fondness for our apples. Although many orchards have disappeared over the past decades, the last few years have seen a renewed interest in traditional apple varieties and the establishment of community orchards around the county. Along with this has come the revival of one of our most colourful local traditions – wassailing!
According to tradition, robins are the good spirits of the trees
In the cider-producing counties of the South West, wassailing is a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of cider apple trees. Its purpose is to awaken the trees from their winter slumbers and scare away evil spirits in order to ensure a good harvest.
The word 'Wassail' is derived from the Old Norse 'Ves heill', the origin of the Old English salutation'Wes Hal', meaning 'Be In Good Health'. One dictionary defines Wassail as 'a riotous festivity characterised by much drinking'. But in areas where apples are grown – and especially in rural Devon – wassailing is not just a 'riotous festivity' but a ritual once taken extremely seriously, as the apple was an important part of the local economy. So, anything that could be done to help the trees produce a generous harvest was wholeheartedly encouraged and the skill and dedication of the 'Wassailers' was all important.
The Wassail Tradition
When Wassailing was first practised is not really known, but it is mentioned in a magazine published in 1791: 'The custom with the Devonshire people to go after supper into the orchard with large quantities of cider, having roasted apples pressed into it'.
Today's wassails usually involve a night-time procession to the orchard, where cider is poured around the roots of the trees, and cider-soaked toast (an offering to the good spirits) placed among their branches, while the assembled wassailers sing wassail songs and recite traditional verses to encourage a good harvest. After this, a loud noise is made to scare away the evil spirits – sometimes guns are fired into the branches of the trees, while elsewhere the wassailers bang pots and pans!
Wassailing originally took place on Twelfth Night, the last day of Christmas (6 January), but in 1752 England adopted the Gregorian Calendar and dates were adjusted by 11 days to realign with the solar year. Although Twelfth Night remained on 6 January, traditionalists regard 17 January, Old Tweltfh Night (often referred to as 'Old Twelfie') as the proper day for Wassailing, and most Devon Wassails are held around this time.
If you've yet to discover the joys of Wassailing, now is your chance, with events all round the county. At Bere Ferrers, the annual Bere Wassail will feature dancing from Dartmoor Border Morris before the procession to the community orchard for the ceremony of the Wassail.
At the Saltram Orchard near Plympton you can learn about the ancient custom of wassailing, before taking part in the ceremony and enjoying apple-related light food and drinks. At Roadford Outdoor + Active Centre near Lifton, you can join South West Lakes Trust staff, Volunteer Jacky Pearce and the Stone Soup storytellers for a traditional evening of wassail and making merry, with mulled cider or apple juice, apple cake, singing, stories and a torchlight procession to the ceremony of the wassail.
Over in East Devon, the Whimple Wassail was revived in 1993 under the auspices of Whimple History Society. Their ritual follows the traditional ceremony with the Mayor in his robes of office and the Princess carrying lightly toasted bread in her delicately trimmed flasket, whilst the Queen, wearing her crown of Ivy, Lichen and Mistletoe, recites the traditional verse:
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.
Her Majesty is then gently but manfully assisted up the tree in order to place the cider-soaked toast in the branches whilst the assembled throng, accompanied by musicians, sing the Wassail Song and dance around the tree. The Mulled Cider or 'Wassail Cup' is then produced and everyone takes a sample with their. The Guns are fired and a general rumpus is created by the crowd banging saucepan lids and playing a variety of percussion 'instruments' of all shapes and sizes to wake up the tree ready for the next crop!
At Stoke Gabriel near Totnes, the Stoke Gabriel Wassail is one of the best known events in Devon, with folk music, Morris dancing, face painting, storytelling and a Mummers play to entertain the crowds before the Apple Blessing Ceremony in the Community Orchard. Hot homemade food, toffee apples, cakes and drink will be available, as well as a well stocked cider bar! Nearby, at Parke, you can join Grimspound Border Morris in some loud singing and lively dancing, and there'll be a bonfire for toasting bread to decorate the trees.
Wassail is the perfect cure for those post-Christmas blues, so get outside, blow away the cobwebs and celebrate a great Devon tradition! Happy New Year everyone... Wes Hal!
If you have any Wassail events or stories to share, do let us know – and don't forget to post your pictures here on Devonport People!