The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Wassail – An Ancient Rite of Orchard Blessing January 27, 2013

Sarah and I near the apple tree before our ceremony!

Sarah and I near the apple tree before our ceremony!

Last weekend, I was honored to be invited to a friend’s orchard for an old-fashioned Wassail ceremony (you can read more about my friend’s orcharding and sustainability work on his blog, The Fruit Nut).  Wassail  (or Old English waes hael, literally meaning “be healthy”) is both a drink of mulled cider and also the actual blessing. Wassailing, which traditionally happens on January 17th, is an ancient English ritual that focuses on blessing the trees to ensure an excellent harvest in the coming year. The tradition originated in Southern England, where villages performed ceremonies to bless the apple trees and scare away evil spirits that may plague the tree. I’m not sure how old the tradition is, but the fact that the term originates from Old English gives some indication of the age of the ceremony.

 

Like many ancient traditions, wassailing recognizes the important, symbiotic relationship of humankind to nature.  As a tree blessing, this tradition allows us, as humans, to express our appreciation for the fruits of the harvest and also our role in the physical and spiritual care of our trees. Wassailing also recognizes that the physical realm and spiritual realms interact, and we need to be sure to understand and aid in the relationship between them. I will also add that wassail is a wonderful “introduction” to more earth-centered spiritual thinking; at our Wassail, we had many people who were earth friendly/sustainability oriented and they really enjoyed it as much as some of the more druidic-leaning folks (and these communities cross quite often, at least here in Michigan!)

 

Wassail script

Wassail script

And so, here is the outline of our Wassail ceremony, for those who want to start their own tradition!

  1. Earlier in the day, our host Trevor determined the tree that gets the blessing for the whole orchard.  The tree was one of the largest in the orchard and had good space around it so that we could stand in a circle during the ceremony.
  2. Just before dusk, we gathered in a circle around the tree, each participant with a cup of steaming, mulled cider. Each participant also had a script so that he/she understood what was happening.
  3. Trevor explained the history and purpose of the ceremony, and also his desire to continue Wassail as a tradition into future years
  4. The “king” of the ceremony, our host, held out a cup of cider while the “queen” dipped two pieces of toasted bread into the cider, then hung the toasted bread on two branches of the tree as an offering.
  5. We then drank of the cider and poured a little on the tree’s trunk and around its roots.
  6. Next, we bowed three times, like we were picking up bushels of apples and hailed the tree.
  7. We sang a wassail song (many varieties exist, but the one that we used was something like this: “Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee, Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow, Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills, Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler biys, holler hurrah”)
  8. Finally, we spent a good long while drumming to raise positive energy for the tree and to ward off evil spirits.  Imagine–15 or so people drumming into the night, dancing and spiraling around the tree!
  9. After that, we went back to the house and enjoyed a potluck dinner.
Trevor ladels out hot mulled cider

Trevor ladels out hot mulled cider

I’d like to see druids more involved–and initiating–such tree blessings. I think its wonderful that we can continue old nature blessing traditions and develop new ones as the need arises.  The trees in our world today, at least here in America, often get no such honor.  Through these kinds of celebrations, we can shift our consciousness and recognizing the importance of maintaining a physical and spiritual connection with the natural world upon which our food systems and lives are based.

 

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19 Responses to “Wassail – An Ancient Rite of Orchard Blessing”

  1. Lexie Says:

    I really enjoyed reading about the Wassail. Sounds like a lot of fun, and I agree that it is good to keep these traditions alive, adapting them as necessary. Helps to make us feel connected to the Earth and all her wonders. 🙂

  2. Alex Jones Says:

    Such festivals are a good way to remind people of their spiritual connection to nature and the land.

  3. Jessica Tess Says:

    Sounds like so much fun! I’d be drumming like crazy to keep warm in this weather lol

  4. uncledeepak Says:

    What interested me most was the fact that this ancient English festival should have taken place on the other side of the great Pond. I imagine it has been resurrected in that country as the interest in paganism has become more widespread. (Or could it have been there since the first settlers arrived?) Indeed, many of these practices never totally died out in Britain – especially in the western parts of the the UK, where the Celtic spirit was not entirely eradicated by the Christian newcomers.

    Mummer’s Day has, I guess, only recently taken place in parts of Cornwall and elsewhere, though in these days of political correctness gone mad there are bound to be shrill voices of protest, since pale British faces are painted black for the purposes of the festivities…!

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Remember that the USA was founded by a bunch of Puritans. Those ancient rites really didn’t carry over well because of those Puritan roots; even today paganism is under much scrutiny here in the USA compared to the UK.

      • WoodlandBard Says:

        It has never gone away from the UK, still well celebrated. I’ve made another post below to explain.

  5. Orchards are such a beautiful pocket of Earth today. In this day in age where we can see our environment literally ripped and torn away from our sights… Its a blessing to spend a day in an orchard, full of shade on a nice day out.

    -Samudaworth Tree Service

  6. alainafae Says:

    This is beautiful! Having grown up in Michigan, I feel a close affinity to apple trees. Glad to have read this post from link on your most current post 😉 Western Michigan is very heavily Christian, but I will make an effort to find orchard or two around here that would not mind being blessed in this manner (for this year or next) 😀

    • Willowcrow Says:

      Ask around–you might be surprised! You can also consider doing a wassail in a public space. Its a tree blessing, so its not overtly pagan. It was done in Christian Europe, after all 🙂

  7. WoodlandBard Says:

    My ultimate favourite ritual, though those January dated celebrations seem to be newer and replacing older fish related rituals rather than apple.

    I was brought up with this and it’s the favourite part of the holiday. Most places I know still do this at Yule, we always did this at Yule, been at it 60 years now :-), but these days prefer Samhain after the apples are picked and stored. Some places like Sussex, Worcester, Gloucester and parts of South Wales and SE Ireland do this around Samhain, have done so 100s of years.

    Tradition is apparently from a Germanic area that is now North East Germany. A few years ago I was invited to teach the ritual in the orchards area of Germany this came from … as nobody does it there and barely any memories of it.

    They translated the song into German too 🙂

  8. WoodlandBard Says:

    A bit about the herring fish blessing of January 6th that some Wassailling may have moved into.

    In Scotland it’s herring and tattles day on the 6th, but that tradition awfully died out, especially when herring catches were banned for several years from the 80s due to low stocks. With that the herring potato mash flicked into the sea, its gravy wiped on the nets and the people ate then later danced to bless themselves. Today the herring are back, but on January 6th the fishing of them is stopped awhile, so that tradition may return.

    Herring is a very inexpensive and very filling fish. It kept Scotland away from the famine Ireland had as much of Ireland had become superstitious against eating food from the sea.

  9. Kit Duffield Says:

    I found a website – Afolksongaday.com with the Apple Tree Wassail Song on it.

  10. […] online forum. (Dana has written pieces on wassailing and tree blessing traditions that you can read here and here. ) Ultimately, these rituals are an opportunity to reflect with deep gratitude on the […]


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