It seems it is finally fashionable again to embrace these native traditions, and we’ve enjoyed seeing film and photos of people doing them over the winter season. It’s especially satisfying to see folk who’ve come to our workshops over the years actually doing the things we were prattling on about! There is nothing more wonderful than seeing mummers, wassailers and hobbyhorses return to communities where they had been lost, and people re-discovering that the real depth of these rituals is not in knowing about them, but in doing them.
On the surface wassailing would seem to be a ritual to make our fruit trees bear well in the coming year, even though you could say that this is quite irrational given our modern understanding of how growing food really works from a scientific point of view. Of course it also serves to bring communities together at the darkest time of year, and give them an excuse to eat, drink and sing together, all activities which provide social ‘glue’ that bind people together in a common purpose. It cements the interdependence of the people and the trees and recognises our dependence on the trees for food and shelter. We promise to be thankful for what they have provided, that we’ll give back to the trees what we can, and we’ll endeavour to protect them from harm.
So how do you actually ‘wassail’ a tree? Well, the consistent features seem to be the following: you process to the trees, singing together, you drink alcohol from a common cup (often a three sided Wassail Bowl) and toast the trees, you talk to your tree using one of several techniques (poetry, flattery,threat and pleading all seem to be quite traditional), you show your appreciation to the tree by decorating it, hanging toast in the branches or libating its roots. You make some loud noises perhaps using pots and pans before shooting through the branches (or maybe letting off a firework or thunderflash) to drive away any lingering evil spirits. There may be a Master of Ceremonies (usually called a Butler) with symbolic items on a tray, perhaps yew for everlasting life, bread, wine and salt. There may be a Wassail King and Queen. The details vary but there is lots of beauty and power left in the old ways.
All this has raised some questions too, in the Kate&Corwen household, about the very nature of ritual, in both folky and pagan communities. Rituals are by definition, repeated acts, and when something is repeated often enough, the reason and origins sometimes cease to be important, simply the fact of doing reigns supreme. Ritual needs purpose, but does the purpose need to be made explicit? Is it better to write our own wassail, or adhere to some traditional form, or maybe combine these two things in some way? Is it still a wassail, if it fulfils the purpose of a wassail, even if it has none of the traditional features or words?
So questions for you- do you have to have Pagan sympathies to carry out an ancient folk tradition, or an understanding of heritage to conduct a Pagan ritual? How do you know when such a ritual has been successful? Can we even distinguish between a Pagan ritual and a folk custom if carried out well by those conducting it?
or search Mudcat’s Lyrics and Knowledge Search for ‘Wassail’ http://www.mudcat.org
Everything you need to know about a Wassail by A.Butler
In the meantime if you’re looking for us we’ll be in the Orchard with some cider and a pop gun 🙂