It’s Wassailing Time Again!
Type the words ‘wassail’ into any search engine and you will get a list of alcoholic drinks recipes, mostly cider based. This little exercise will give hints towards the practice of wassailing, an old English ritual which is still practised today in the cider making counties of the UK.
Last year our lovely landlord Emma, had invited Es and I to attend our first ever wassail being held at Donhead St Mary, a little village approximately 2 miles out of Shaftesbury. This year she invited us again, unfortunately Es was working but I didn’t want to miss out so I went alone meeting Emma and her friend Zoe there. This was a family favourite and of course both ladies had their lovely boys in tow.
Steeped in old English tradition, the evening is a collection of Morris dancers, singing, folk music and of course the ritual itself. Traditionally held on the old twelfth night (17th January) pre-Gregorian calendar, it is a ceremony which scares away evil spirits and welcomes good harvest for the year. I am glad to report that last years crop had been a bumper one for the brewery so we must have done a very good job at our ‘wassailing’ in 2017.
The evening started as usual in the community hall, where we all gathered before the walk down the country lane to the orchard. The orchard itself belongs to Donhead cider making company, a small but perfectly capable cider making company with an orchard of approximately 800 trees and their own bee hives filled with beautiful pollinating bees.
A collection of the village locals (and interested outlanders like me) had gathered, complete with pots, pans and wooden spoons to take part. Unfortunately I forgot about the pots and pans bit, so I arrived sans noise making equipment and had to therefore satisfy myself with taking photos. The mood of the evening was one of much joviality and a warm welcome which can only be felt in such small tight knit communities.
The evening kicked off with the local Morris dancing group performing in the road outside the hall. Again another old English tradition, a bunch of people dressed in the most bizarre outfits clunking sticks together or waving white hankies! bell pads on their knees and shoes with much shouting and regaling. Interestingly the earliest known mention of Morris dance in the UK is dated 1448, and although it is a somewhat odd tradition, and ever more odd to think that someone would enjoy doing it, it forms an important part of our heritage.
When the dancing had finished the musicians led the motley group of locals with dogs and children in tow, clunking and clanking down the lane to the orchard.
We gathered around the blue shepherds hut, where the green man has been asleep over the winter, to wake him up so he can bless the trees. This involved two lovely little ‘Wassailing Princesses’ dressed in their finery, knocking on the door to the hut and shouting ‘Green man, Green man, wake up!” To which an impressive 6ft tree then appeared from the cabin donned in what I assume was a Christmas wreath on his head complete with a green cape, green face paint and green wellies.
The Green Man led us all down into the orchard to a pre-chosen and decorated apple tree. The tree was then decorated with cider soaked toast by the princesses and cider was poured on its roots (I hope the tree appreciated it!). This is to bless the tree and encourage good spirits to the orchard. Previously we had all been handed a piece of paper so we could collectively chant the blessing. I put the paper in my pocket so I could include it in the post….but I appear to have lost it.
Once the blessing has been chanted we were shooed off into the orchard to bang those pan lids, blow whistles and holler as loud as possible in order to scare out any bad spirits.
Once the ritual was complete, led by the musicians playing jolly tunes, we all headed back to the hall for mulled cider and cheese rolls. The evening was rounded off with more entertainment in the form of folk songs, poetry and a one man play of Saint George and the Turkish Knight, which bizarrely includes Father Christmas and dates from approximately 1885. As you can see St George wears a bucket on his head…or maybe not
The whole evening is only about 2 hours long and the community hall and organisers only request donations to cover their costs. It is one of those lovely little traditions that have evolved over many years and yet delightfully are still practised today. I must admit, when watching the princesses call out the green man I did wonder about the wonderful childhood they were experiencing and the memories they will carry with them the rest of their lives.