Tuesday, January 06, 2015


Wassailing the Trees

"About Cider," All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal, 3rd Series, No. 87 (August 30, 1890) 198-202 (at 200):
There is an old superstition in some parts of the country still, that, if the sun shines on the apple-trees on Christmas Day, there will be a good crop next season.

There is an old custom in the West of England of blessing, or "wassailing," the apple-trees, a custom said to have its origin in the superstition referred to by Herrick in his "Hesperides":
Wassaile the trees that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare;
For more or lesse fruits they will bring
As you do give them wassailing.
The process of "wassailing" consists of the people singing round the tree such verses as these:
Health to thee, great apple-tree!
Well to bear hats full, caps full.
Three-bushel bags full.
Then three cheers are given for the tree, and guns are often fired.
I should try this to improve the health of the scraggly apple-trees on my land.

Hat tip: John Bergmayer.

Update from Alan Knell:
The Mellstock Band is a small group specialising in traditional English songs and music.

Their album "The Leaves of Life" includes the apple Tree Wassail. The notes with the disk say this.
The custom of "wassailing" apple trees was widespread in the south of England, especially in Somerset, where it persists to the present day.

A group of villagers would go into the orchard at night in wintertime, usually at New Year or Twelfth Night, choose the oldest or best tree to represent the orchard, and drink a formal toast to it, as if it were a living person.

In different places cider might be poured on the roots, the branches decked with sheep's wool or toasted bread dipped in cider, and shotguns fired through the branches while tin trays and buckets were beaten.

Often a ceremonial toast was spoken, and a special song sung.

Cecil Sharp collected this song from William Crockford of Bratten, Somerset, on September 12th, 1906. The toast ran:
Bud, blossom, bloom and bear, ready to tear,
So that we shall have apples and cider next year.
Hat-fulls, cap-fulls, three-bushel-bag-fulls,
Little heap under the stairs,
Cider running out gutter-holes.
Hip, Hip, Hurrah!

A cider-apple orchard is a beautiful sight. The trees are relatively small, but blossom in spring is abundant, and in autumn the trees are loaded with small dark red apples, too hard and sour to eat. They say that the varieties of cider-apple numbered well into three figures, but most are now rare or extinct.

There was a time in England when you could tell your place by looking at the varieties of live-stock and crops.

Laudamus tempora acta!

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