Unless you live in cider country, you’d be forgiven for not knowing what a wassail is. But every year on this date, according to an ancient calendar (or on Twelfth Night), it has been an old English tradition to bless the trees in the apple orchards to ensure a good harvest in the year ahead.
The tradition is thought to go back over a 1,000 years originating in the cider producing counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. The term ‘wassail’ comes from the Old English ‘was hál’, a toast that means ‘be in good health’. Essentially, it’s a great excuse to make lots of noise to drive the evil spirits out of the orchard and then share a drink of cider with friends and eat yet more cake.
Where to Go Wassailing
One of our favourite restaurants, The Ethicurean, at Barley Wood Walled Garden in Wrington, hosts a ‘Tasty Wassail Tales’ annual event. It’s an evening of food, tales, suspense, orchard blessing, music & laughter. Telling legend Martin Maudsley and fiddler Fiona Barrow, tell Wassail tales and play magical music between four courses of an apple-inspired feast. The £50 per head menu includes Barley Wood Mulled Cider and courses such as cultured apple, baked apple and drunken apple. The dessert sounds intriguing – toffee apple, honeycomb, seaweed and Ying Yang bean.
One of the most popular wassails is held at Old Mill Farm at Bolney in Sussex (it usually takes place on the 1st Saturday of January). It begins with a shotgun being fired into the air, at which point, everyone makes as much noise as possible. People are encouraged to bring dustbin lids, rattles and whistles.
In early January, there’s now an event next to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre featuring Mummers (masked performers) and the Holly Man (a pagan folklore figure). There’s a toast to the good health of the crowds, the River Thames and the Globe theatre. Artists perform a play, lead a procession, dance and tell traditional folk tales.
Alara Wholefoods hosts the Camley Street Wassail Awakening Party, a hugely popular annual wassail party. It supports the Urban Orchard Project which works with urban communities in planting, restoring, managing and harvesting orchards.
If January wassailing passes you by, make a date in your diary to visit North Wales for the Gwledd Conwy Feast in October where the festival events include a lively lantern-lit wassail.