St. Nicholas

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Advent Calendar for Grown-ups

by Paul Bommer

DECEMBER 21 Wassail


Illustration by Paul Bommer
Used by permission

The word Wassail refers to several related traditions; first and foremost wassailing is an ancient southern English tradition that is performed with the intention of ensuring a good crop of cider apples for the next year's harvest. It also refers to both the salute 'Waes Hail,' the term itself is a contraction of the Middle English phrase wæs hæil, meaning litereally 'good health' or 'be you healthy' and to the drink of wassail which is a hot mulled cider traditionally drunk as an integral part of the wassail ceremony. Howver the offering of libations, a ritual pouring of a drink as an offering to a god, diety or spirit was common in the religions of antiquity and the practice probably goes back millennia.

In the cider-producing counties in the South West of England (primarily Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive. The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn.{England In Particular, 2007} The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next, the wassail Queen will then be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she will place toast soaked in Wassail from the Clayen Cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). Then an incantation is usually recited such as

Here's to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An' all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

At Carhampton, near Minehead, the Apple Orchard Wassailing is held on the Old Twelfth Night (17 January) as a ritual to ask God for a good apple harvest. The villagers form a circle around the largest apple tree, hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the 'good spirits' of the tree. A shotgun is fired overhead to scare away evil spirits and the group sings, the following being the last verse:

Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We've come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs

My Partner's surname is Appleton. The name is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and is locational from any of the several places thus called, for example, Appleton in Cumberland, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Norfolk, Cheshire, Berkshire and Kent. Recorded as "Apeltun" and "Epletune" in the Domesday Book of 1086 for the various counties, the name derives from the Olde English pre-7th Century "aeppeltun," an orchard, a compound of "aeppel," an apple, plus "tu,n, an enclosure or settlement.

Here I have shown two of Nick's ancestors in the Kentish orchard from which they got their name. They wear broadly typical Anglo-Saxon garb (note Aethelwulf Aeppeltun's garnet-encrusted cloak broach), drinking ale or cider from horns and generally making merry on this, the shortest day of the Year. Note too the drink-soaked crust in the branches, the now dormant skep in the orchard and the tipsy Robin Redbreast looking on. Behold, the birth of the English binge-drinking culture!

Wassail! Drink Hale!

From Paul Bommer: Illustration, design & Print-making. Used by permission.

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