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!)
And so, here is the outline of our Wassail ceremony, for those who want to start their own tradition!
- 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.
- 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.
- Trevor explained the history and purpose of the ceremony, and also his desire to continue Wassail as a tradition into future years
- 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.
- We then drank of the cider and poured a little on the tree’s trunk and around its roots.
- Next, we bowed three times, like we were picking up bushels of apples and hailed the tree.
- 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”)
- 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!
- After that, we went back to the house and enjoyed a potluck dinner.
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.