Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
May you bud, May you bow!
Stand fast root, bear well top,
Pray God send us a good howling crop.
Every twig, apples big,
Every bough, apples now.
Hats full, caps full, full quarter sacks full,
Holla boys holla, and blow the horn!
The Wassail Chant
The first Wassail I went to was at Middle Farm near the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex. It was run by a fantastic local Border Morris side called Hunter’s Moon. Although there is much debate about the origins of Morris dancing, Hunter’s Moon wore their Pagan leanings on their sleeve, particularly at the Wassail. People gathered in the farm and then were led on a torchlit procession across the farm to the orchard. There amongst the boughs of the old apple trees the words above were spoken, other songs were sung, cider was shared, and toast was hung on the trees. A bonfire was lit that contained fireworks and horns were blown with loud cheering to awaken the spirits of the trees, offering a blessing for a good crop of apples. Yes, it might be about all forms of apples, but inside I have always thought it had more to do with cider.
I went to the Hunter’s Moon Wassail for a number of years. It kicked off the year for me, being the first ritual of the year. It was always a great night. But then it began to get a little too big. It was one of the only Wassail nights in Sussex at the time, and Middle Farm is a very popular location, but in the end it became too big for me. I couldn’t get close to the orchard, let alone hear the words of the ceremony. Further away from the orchard there was lots of talking, and the world I was trying to leave behind for just a few hours, the world of football, soaps, cars, the everyday world of life, spilled over into that night as the further away you were from the ceremony, the less people felt involved, and so the focus was lost. In the end, for whatever reasons, the Middle Farm Wassail ended. It was a shame, but that opened the floodgates for a host of smaller Wassail events to begin. The Hunter’s Moon Middle Farm Wassail was the virtual parent of so many other Sussex Wassail ceremonies, and now there are loads, not only all over Sussex, but all over the country. The natural successor to the Hunter’s Moon Wassail is without doubt the Wassail run by the Pentacle Drummers in Pevensey. A huge event that this year drew 600 people. The photos I’ve seen are as amazing as ever, and long may it continue.
For me though, I have always yearned for the feeling I had at those earlier Hunter’s Moon events. Quiet (at least for a while), time to reflect, intimate, and local. I’ve been to a few over the years, trying to find one that felt right to me. There was one at Slindon run on National Trust land that was organised by another Sussex Morris side, Mythago, and it was lovely. Exactly what I needed. But once more the curse of size and popularity reared its head, and the locals of Slindon complained so much about the incoming cars that the event was stopped. In truth I lost track of what Mythago did next, until this year I heard that they had been running a Wassail at the Community Orchard in Steyning. Brilliant, thought I. Steyning is 15 minutes away from me, so this year we went there.
The Sun had set so me, Cerri, and a few friends, made our way to the Steyning Cricket Club, the meet up place for the Wassail. There was Harveys Ale (always a bonus) and Mythago started the evening with a few of their dances. There are a lot of traditional Morris dances and Mythago of course do those, but they also create new dances based on the myths and legends of Albion. Their dances tell stories, and I find this such a wonderful fusion of arts. As they told and danced their tales so more people turned up. I would say there was about 100 people there when the Mythago leader invited everyone to follow the torches and drums across the field to the Orchard. It was a lovely night, crisp and icy, just a little muddy underfoot. Exactly right for a Wassail.
As we walked across the field the orchard came into view, and I could see that one of the apple trees, quite a large, old tree, had been hung with bunting, and it stood lit up by the flames of lit torches. A circle was formed around the tree, and quiet fell. Together we spoke the words of the Wassail Chant above, then everyone was invited to take a piece of toast, dip it in the Wassail cup, and hang it on the tree, offering a blessing for the year ahead. Those are moments that make me very emotional. In my life as a Pagan I organise, and am involved with, lots of rituals. In my personal life I make ritual alone to mark the seasons, and in reverence to my Gods. To me this is a normal part of life. But then you have moments like this, when people who would not identify as Pagan, or even any spiritual path, are moved to make a blessing such as this. Call it what you like but there is sympathetic magic at work here, and an honouring of a tree, a being with whom we share this planet, and whose fruits help us live, and brings us such pleasure. I saw burly bare-headed men lift their children up so they could hang their blessed toast. I saw young people engage in the moment along with silver-haired men and women. It was beautiful.
Hung with toast and offerings, everyone then called out the Tree Blessing –
May your roots grow strong and low,
To drink from waters deep below,
And as your branches reach up high,
May you drink from the light of sunlit sky.
Come forth now from Winter’s slumber,
To bring forth leaves in countless number,
And upon your branches blossom unfurl,
To bring forth fruit from every bough.
Laden with fruit, and always green,
Now and forever fruitful be,
Accept our offerings, that in thanks we give,
May you grow in joy; long may you live!
Wassail!! (with the response “Drink Hael!!”)
We then sung the old Sussex Sugar Wassail and more dancing ensued, with all of us participating, finally turning to run screaming into the field to scare away any of those pesky spirits that may have not got the message.
Then a thank you, and back to the Cricket Club for ale and cider, the Orchard honoured and blessed.
As I was there in Steyning I also thought of all of the other Wassails that were happening, and had been happening since 12th Night, all over Sussex. As we were there in Steyning, so the 600 people were also in Pevensey, raising their glasses high and shouting “Wassail!” with everyone responding, “Drink Hael!” I absolutely love seeing these old traditions alive and well. Some remain quite small and understated, but the Wassail seems to have got under the skin of people here, and long may that celebration continue.