Wassailing the Fruit Trees

Wassailing the Fruit Trees

In past centuries people in some parts of England bestowed a traditional, ritualized blessing on their fruit trees during the Christmas season. They sang and drank to the trees' health, hence the custom was known as "wassailing the fruit trees" or, more specifically, as "wassailing the apple trees" (see also Wassail). This practice took place on a variety of dates within the Christmas season, including Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Old Twelfth Night (January 17). Most people who participated in this tradition, however, honored their trees on the evening of January 5. This day was known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany Eve, or Old Christmas Eve (see also Old Christmas Day).

Although each locale developed its own variations, the main features of the custom remained the same. Family members, farm workers, or neighbors gathered together in the evening and prepared a bowl of wassail punch. Then they carried the wassail outside to the fruit trees or orchard, filled each other's cups, drank, and sang to the trees. These wassailing songs encouraged the trees to produce bountifully in the coming year, as illustrated in the following verse in a song from Devon and Cornwall:

Here's to thee, old apple tree, Whence to bud and whence to blow, And whence to bear us apples enow: Barn-fulls, bag-fulls, sack-fulls, Lap-fulls, hat-fulls, cap-fulls: Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah! [Crippen, 1990, 190].

Another song from Kent conveys similar sentiments:

Stand fast, root, bear well, top; God send us a yowling crop, Every twig, apple big; Every bow, apples enow; Hats full, caps full, bushel bushel sacks full, And my pockets full too! Hooray! [Crippen, 1990, 191]. Shouts, horn blasts, and even shots aimed between the tree branches might accompany the singing. Some folklorists interpret the noise as additional encouragement to the trees to blossom and fruit as the days lengthened. In some areas the singers poured the remains of the wassail onto the roots of the fruit trees. They sometimes left a bit of cake and some salt in the crook of the tree as a gift for robins or other birds. In some areas groups of local men trooped from homestead to homestead blessing the trees in this fashion. Householders usually thanked them with food, ale, or money.

Some folklorists believe that the wassailing of fruit trees may have originated in pagan times. The earliest documented account of the custom, however, dates back only as far as the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century the English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote the following lines about the custom as it was practiced in Devon:

Wassail the trees, that they may bear You many a plum and many a pear: For more or less of fruit they bring As you do give them wassailing [Crippen, 1990, 189].

The wassailing of apple and other fruit trees at Christmas time began to die out in the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the next century it had disappeared, though the twentieth century witnessed a few revivals of the custom. Herrick's advice notwithstanding, the practice resurfaced in these places less as an aid to agricultural prospects and more as an occasion for festivity and an attraction for sightseers.

Further Reading

Crippen, Thomas G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Palmer, Geoffrey, and Noel Lloyd. A Year of Festivals. London, England: Frederick Warne, 1972. Palmer, K., and R. W. Patten. "Some Notes on Wassailing and Ashen Fagots in South and West Somerset." Folklore 82 (winter 1971): 281-91.