Wednesday, 28 January 2009

wassail away...

Wassailing is the pagan fertility rites carried out on Fruit Trees to awake them and has been celebrated in England since the 1400's.

The word wassail derives from the Old English words wæs (þu) hæl which means variously ‘be healthy' or ‘be whole' - both of which meanings survive in the modern English phrase ‘hale and hearty'. Thus this is a traditional ceremony which seeks to start off the first stirrings of life in the land and to help it emerge from winter and to ensure that the next season's crop of fruit, especially apples and pears, will be bountiful.

After dark those taking part process down to the orchard, ceremonially bearing the wassail bowl filled with the prepared booze. They also carry large sticks and such items as shotguns, drums, kettles, pans and whistles - anything which can be used to create lots of noise in fact.
The ceremony generally begins with the tree, usually the oldest and most venerable tree in an orchard, being variously serenaded with traditional "wake up" type of chants and rhymes alternating with speeches by the group's leader in praise of the tree, its fruitfulness in previous years and exhorting it to do even better in the coming year. The following one was recorded near Painswick in Gloucestershire:
Blowe, blowe, bear well,
Spring well in April,
Every sprig and every spray
Bear a bushel of apples against Next new year's day

The custom usually continues with the tree or trees being beaten about the trunk (and any branches within reach) with the sticks. This is believed to begin the process of awakening the tree and starting the sap flowing up the trunk. It is accompanied by much shouting and the making of as much noise as possible, and shotguns are commonly fired up into the branches. Again, this is believed to assist the tree in awakening from its winter sleep as well as frightening away any evil spirits which might be lurking in the branches.

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