In the dark depths of winter, here in England’s southwesterly corner, when the Christmas trees have been taken down, and the fairylights wound up and packed away, when the families have dispersed and everyone’s back at work, people need a pick-me-up.
“WASSAIIIIIIAIAIAIAIAIAAIAIAIL!” It was my neighbour, H. “Oh, I do love a good shout,” she said, confidentially, into my now-ringing ear. “I never get to really shout, you know.”
The Wellington wassail was in full swing out in the Dolphin pub beer garden. Wooden pallets were being flung on the fire-pit, and children were hurtling around in a state of high excitement, being cheerfully ignored by the milling crowd of sozzled grown-ups who may, or may not have included their parents.
Wassa wassail? you may well ask, and you probably would slur the question like that, because a wassail is not a wassail, my friend, unless lubricated with large amounts of cider. This annual event takes place on the twelfth night after Christmas to bless the fruit trees for a happy harvest. Wassailing goes on across the country, but is an especially big deal in the apple-icious county of Somerset where I live.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it all turned out to be a lot noisier than I’d imagined. The whole thing was less Hobbitty more Pirates of the Caribbean in style. In our own quasi-steam-punk Shire, the revels were orchestrated by a man in a battered top hat, with a white-painted face and a wide black stripe painted over his eyes like a bandit. He was the ‘song keeper’, and was helped by Mr ‘Double-Danger the Second’, whose own broad-brimmed hat bristled with thistle-heads and feathers. The third figure was a short, portly figure – I think it was female – dressed as a dragon, who capered around the apple tree waggling her bottom enthusiastically, rather more like Peppa Pig than Smaug.
The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Old Norse ‘ves heill’ meaning ‘good health’ – and the festival is all about ensuring the health and fertility of the apple trees. A good crop of fruit means a tidy barrel of cider come autumn, and enough left over to see you through the long winter months to the spring.
As I watched the proceedings, I couldn’t help but wonder whether some old customs are based on a bit of creative mishearing. I imagine a sceptical barmaid back in the pub of yore, hands on hips, saying, “Are you sure? I could’ve sworn they said raise a toast to the tree...”
“Nay, nay, Mistress Golightly. Raise a toast up the tree! That’s what’ll keep the spirits away.”
“Arrrr. Now, take these bits o’toast and string ’em up good an’ proper! And mind the jam.”
The main thing, I soon learned, was not the niceties of the ceremony itself –hanging toast in the branches, capering around the trunk, singing folksongs, nor even the jolly gili-dandification of morris dancers – it is that periodically, everyone has to shout at the top of their lungs: WASAAAAAIIIIILLL!!!!
This, along with the banging of pots and pans, the blowing of whistles and the beating of drums is there to frighten away the ‘maulscrawl’ spirits, that otherwise might blight the fruit and attack the tree.
At one point, a large bowl of warmed spiced cider was offered round. People lined up to take a sip and then spit the contents on the base of the tree.
“Roll up, roll up!” cried the Song Keeper. “Roll up for a bit of unhygienic communalism!” Which is not a sentence you hear every day.
As people gurgled, spat and yelled, a man turned to me and asked, politely, whether there are any rituals like this in India.
“Er, yes,” I admitted. “But the spitting isn’t confined to one sacred place or a particularly special day. It’s more of a year-round, on-going type of situation. But then, it is a very spiritual country.”
“Ah,” he nodded sagely. “Indeed.”
In Apple Queen a novel by local author Alexandra Lavarazzi, wassailing takes on a more sinister tone, as Vera, a widow from Switzerland, arrives in Somerset to visit her grown-up daughter, Nadja. Nadja has recently been crowned ‘apple queen’ of her village – a great honour, no doubt, but a rather double-edged sword, as it transpires that none of the previous apple queens have survived more than a year after the wassail ceremony.
Surprised that she’s planning to stay quite so long, one of the local women says to Vera ‘We’re a bit odd in Somerset’ – a sentiment which sounds suspiciously more like the author’s than her character’s. Vera’s meddlesome continental sleuthing soon uncovers the sordid truth of apparently quaint village life. When they say ‘bury my heart at Wounded Knee’ they don’t mean literally – or do they? What is that gruesome package, buried beneath the apple tree, slowly decomposing to add its very own, special human fertilizer to the soil?