Wassailing Day – Saturday 18 January 2020
Visitors to the Weald & Downland Living Museum on Saturday 18 January can also find out about wassailing that day. This is one element of the Stories weekend, of our first Historic Life Weekend for 2020.
The word ‘Wassail’ comes from the Saxon, ‘Waes Hael’, which means ‘Good Health’. It was a toast at the feasting. When a drink was given or offered, the giver would say, ‘Waes Hael’, and the receiver would reply with ‘Drink Hael’ (drink well).
In times when a good harvest and the successful rearing of farm animals were essential to survival, ceremonies were devised to ensure the health of crops, animals and the farmer himself, who was the local employer on whom many labouring men depended for their livelihood. Good health for all was the wish, especially just after Midwinter when the days were at their coldest and life hung in the balance.
The origins of the Wassail, or Good Health, ceremonies are obscure, but the custom of Wassailing in all its forms continued into the beginning of the nineteenth century and, in some places, beyond that. Some present day ceremonies claim to be unbroken traditions, but most are revivals. Several types of Wassailing evolved. The house-visiting Wassail involved a group of singers carrying their bowl from house to house, singing a song on each doorstep, and having their bowl filled with hot spiced cider or ale by the occupants, who were then assured good health for the coming year.
In some areas, the farm animals were Wassailed. The filled bowl was carried round the stables and byres and the best of the animals, named in a song, and sprinkled with cider, a sprig of rosemary being used as a swatch. This was to ensure calves and foals for the coming year, and also a good grain harvest. The Wassailers would then retire to the farmhouse to make a similar wish for the farmer and his family, and would be rewarded with yet more cider and ale.
Wassailing the apple trees developed in the apple growing counties of the south-west and west of England, and also in Sussex and Kent. The reason for this was to ensure a plentiful supply of cider. It was the duty of every farmer to supply drink for his workers at all times. This varied from very weak brews for everyday consumption, to the really strong ales brewed for special occasions like the harvest supper, the end of sheep-shearing and for Christmas. Where there were no apple trees, the drink was beer or ale, but these are made from barley and will cost the farmer money. Where there were plenty of apple trees, the drink was cider, so that all the barley could be sold and the farm would prosper. Wassailing the apple trees ensured a good apple crop, by giving bread and cider to the good spirits of the orchard and driving out the evil spirits with rough music and gunfire.
In Sussex and Kent, the loud noise of the ceremony led it to be called ‘Apple Howling’ or ‘Apple Yowling’. Although other apple Wassailing songs have been collected from the West Country, none have been discovered which refer directly to Sussex and Kent traditions. We will include this element, with a newly written ‘Yowling Song’ by Gail Duff, inspired by old Wassailing chants.