AT THE time when many are taking down their Christmas decorations, groups of people will be gathering in orchards around the world for a ritual whose roots can be traced back at least 2000 years.
Sung over the Christmas period, “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green”, and “Wassail, wassail, all over the town”, may not be as well known as “O come, all ye faithful”, and “Hark! the herald angels sing”, but they are certainly to be found in collections of Christmas carols.
The tradition of wassailing, which has pre-Christian roots and is now becoming increasingly popular, says something important about society’s relationship with culture. I believe that it can refresh the Church’s relationship with communities, and influence society’s engagement with the environment.
“Wassail” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that means “good health”, and, over the centuries, both apple trees and people have been wassailed. In Porlock, West Somerset, today’s community gathers for its wassail celebrations on 5 January (Twelfth Night).
The celebrations begin with food and drink (mulled cider), which are followed by a mummers’ play — an amateur folk drama depicting St George’s fight against evil. There follows a procession to an orchard, where the oldest apple tree is laden with Christmas decorations and lights. Toast dipped in cider is hung on the branches and cider is poured around its roots. The toast attracts robins, which gorge themselves on the bugs that may infect both tree and fruit. The robin personifies a good spirit, and the unwelcome bugs a bad one.
Then there is an almighty racket (people shout, whistle, and bang pots and pans) to “awaken” the tree from its winter sleep, and to chase away the evil spirits.
The tree is “wassailed” with a song (see below). Doing everything possible to ensure a healthy crop is particularly important in communities that depend economically on apples. Accompanied by song and music, the community then processes to the next orchard, where the ceremony is repeated.
Villagers in Carhampton near by also wassail their orchard. Instead of a mummers’ play, though, morris dancers there take part in awakening the trees and dismissing evil spirits, helped by farmers’ firing their shot-guns. Carhampton’s revived wassail has played a significant part in attracting local and international media attention during the 1970s and ’80s.
In feudal times, it was usual to wassail people. This involved an exchange of blessings between peasants who went from door to door wishing their lords a merry Christmas, and who received gifts from their lords in exchange. The words of “Here we come a-wassailing” flesh out the custom:
Good master and good mistress,
As you sit by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.
WHAT draws people away from their televisions, superfast broadband (yes, even in Somerset villages), and warm fires to visit local orchards on frosty evenings? Is this revival of an ancient custom simply nostalgic romanticism, or is something else going on? What can be learnt from a custom that is becoming more widespread, and appears in unexpected places?
At the last Porlock wassail, a couple from Tasmania spoke about the wassailing ceremonies that take place there. Three reflections on the ceremonies may help to answer these questions.
First, wassailing is a community celebration enjoyed by both those who attend church and those who do not. As with many Christian festivals, it includes pre-Christian influences and traditions with which Christians can confidently engage.
AlamyMembers of the Leominster Morris folk-dance group take part in a torchlit Wassailing ceremony
The ritual has obvious Christian features: wassailing is, effectively, blessing the tree. The mummers’ play brings St George into the ceremony. It takes place around the feast of the Epiphany. Wassailing is a pilgrimage around the community, but it needs a gathering-place. This could be the church, with welcoming refreshments and the mummers’ play.
Second, the wassail ceremony touches chords deep within our culture. Encouraging the tree to produce abundantly, the community performs a fertility rite; chasing away the evil spirits, the mummers’ players and the morris dancers engage in the primal battle of good against evil, light against darkness. The time of wassailing is close to the winter solstice, after which, in the northern hemisphere, daylight increases and darkness diminishes.
Third, wassail ceremonies reveal a warm, even tender, partnership with creation. The apple tree is serenaded and respected. Even now that food can easily be bought from the local supermarket, the ceremony reminds the community that its well-being depends on the fruits of the land.
The increasing popularity of ceremonies such as those on Plough Sunday, Rogation Day, and at Lammastide point to a desire to reconnect with our ancient cultural roots. Our digitally dominated society brings blessings, but the danger is that we lose touch with the past that nourishes us. The stories and experiences of the Christian faith interwoven with those of the local community have sustained many facing the ultimate questions of life, good, and evil.
TELEVISION programmes such as Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet and Dynasties, and the release a year ago of a new Star Wars film, capture the public imagination because they touch on these large questions, which have always emerged as cultural. The Christian faith has related to culture in ways that range from turning its back on it, to embracing it uncritically.
At its best, the Church provides space (geographical, intellectual, and spiritual) and opens doors for communities and people to grow, struggle, and flourish. Faith can provide them with both ritual and meaning.
But while churches go to great lengths to engage with society and its needs, its relationship with culture is fraying. Fewer baptisms, marriages, and funerals are taken through the Church than ever before. Many churches, some preoccupied with their own survival and others bulging at the seams, conduct their ecclesial life parallel to, rather than together with the communities beyond their walls.
It is on their relationship with cultures that churches need to work — and well-attended ceremonies such as wassails indicate that there is a thirst for such engagement.
Dr Brian Castle, formerly Bishop of Tonbridge, is an assistant bishop in Bath & Wells diocese, and a Fellow of Exeter University.
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear:
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
To bloom well, and to bear well,
So merry let us be:
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout to the old apple tree:
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear,
Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagfulls
And a little heap under the stairs.