Wassail all over the town!

Image copyright Colwall Orchard Group

GLOUCESTERSHIRE WASSAIL SONGS AND MEMORIES

A Wissal A Wassail sung by Charley Williams

Charley Williams remembers the Wassailing songs in Brockweir and Bream part 1

Charley Williams remembers the Wassailing songs in Brockweir and Bream part 2

Charley Williams remembers the Wassailing songs in Brockweir and Bream part 3

Charley was born in Brockweir in the Forest of Dean in 1909.  He was interviewed by Bob Patten in 1977 about his memories of the wassail traditions in the area.  He recalled that Wassailing was common sixty years ago, especially around Brockweir., but thinks that the First World War may have ended the tradition.

These recordings form part of the Bob and Jacqueline Patten Collection of Folk Recordings now held by the British Library.

WORCESTERSHIRE CUSTOMS

In Evesham on 21st December, St Thomas Day, locals recall that people would go round door to door asking for food, drink or money to help them get through the Christmas period.

A local rhyme mentions throwing down apples, probably because at this time the last of the apples were being stored away by prudent housewives, to see them through the winter…

A wissal, a wassal about the town:
Got any apples, throw them down.
Jug’s white, ale’s brown;
This is the best house in the town.

Holly and ivy and mistletoe bough,
Give me an apple and let me go.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
Up the stocking and down the show.

Got no apples, money’ll do;
Got no money, God bless you.

WHAT IS WASSAIL?

So important were the cider orchards to the local economy that many traditions arose to ensure good growth, the most famous being the Wassail.

This folk ceremony, usually carried out on Twelfth Night (which falls on 5 or 6 January in the ‘New’ calendar and 17 January in the ‘Old’ year), involves cider, song, dance, fire and the discharge of shotguns into the fruit tree branches ‘to scare off evil spirits’.

Wassailers, wearing mistletoe and bearing fiery torches, would choose the best apple tree and pour cider on its roots to ‘give back’ strength for the coming year’s growth.  They also would place a cider-soaked cake placed in the fork of the tree and dip a few branches in the cider pail.

Our Herefordshire project partner, the Colwall Orchard Group, holds an annual Wassail and this film gives an excellent idea of goings on!

TENBURY WASSAILING IN THE 19TH CENTURY

In the 1870s Edwin Lees, a Worcester-born botanist and antiquarian, described the wassail tradition in the Teme Valley:

To an elevated wheat field, there twelve small fires were lighted, and a large one in the centre, these fires generally  being considered representative  of our Saviour and the twelve apostles, though in some places they have the vulgar appellation of Old Meg and her daughters.

Jugs of prime cider having been brought, healths are joyously drunk with abundant hurrahing from a circle formed round a central fire. The party afterwards adjourn to an orchard, and there encircling one of the best trees, and not forgetting cider, sprinkle the tree, while one of the party carols forth the following verse:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree, 
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow.

Hats full and caps full,
Bushels full and sacks full,
And my pockets full too.

A chorus of obstreperous huzzahs follows…, and the whole party then return to the farmhouse, where a bountiful supper with libations of cider, the result of former wassailing, awaits them. That this observance is not yet given up in some secluded place is evident from what I have heard of an old farmer, who stated to a visitor that his neglect of wassailing one year caused the failure of his crop of apples.

Edwin Lees’ account, reproduced in
The Folklore of Worcestershire, Roy Palmer (Logaston, 2005)

How long did this tradition last?

We asked Jim Froggatt and David Spilsbury who remember farming near Rochford in the 1930s, but they cannot recall wassailing taking place or anything like it. We assume that wassailing must have fallen out of practice in this area just after the Great War, if not before.

These days, local groups are keen to revive the traditions and wassailing may yet return to the Teme Valley…