It would be easy to forgive a passerby to a wassail for thinking that to wassail is to simply sing songs about fertility and getting trashed while taking as many slurps as you can from the shared wassail bowl, for its contents are most certainly alcoholic. But it is oh so much more than that.
I was a wassailing virgin till joining BOG (Bath Organic Group) at the annual ritual a couple of weeks back. I think 2016 was a good year to join as I was told by the compere that 'we normally sacrifice a virgin but alas we had none this year.' So we stuck to the run-of-the-mill traditions associated with this great ritual instead.
To backpedal if you aren't familiar with this bizarre sounding phenomenon, wassailing is the annual blessing of orchards held in the midst of winter in order to ensure a good harvest for the coming year.
In part, it is totally practical. That weekend I learned to prune, thinning out the trees in BOG's apple orchard to encourage a fruitful growth. On the other hand, it is a spiritual (and largely comical) practice where the intent is to waken the trees from their slumber, scare away evil spirits and call on the blessing of the God's...
"Mini apple stop your snoozing, we need you for next years boozing"
And so after a pruning, those of us gathered in the orchard sang songs urging the trees to bear fruit. We banged on pots, pans and bin lids with our wooden spoons to guarantee that we had well and truly woken them up (and the neighbours) from their winter hibernation. We hung toast on the branches and decorated them with ribbon. And, perhaps an important instigator to the hilarity, we drank from the wassail bowl. Passing it round, drinking its strong contents and shouting 'wassail' as we did so.
"Young apple tree, old apple tree, we wassail thee. Here's hoping you will bear hats full, caps full, a 100 recycled bags full, with plenty left to share."
Honestly, it was absolutely surreal. But honestly, it was a Saturday bloody well spent. I can wholeheartedly confirm that I love the West Country and the traditions England quietly (/loudly) continues, in all their cider infused bizarre-ness.