“Wassail” is Anglo-Saxon for “good health”, and is an ancient ceremony marked by farming communities on 17 January (old 12th night).
It involves the local community dancing and singing round apple trees in the orchard, and pouring cider around its roots before firing shotguns to scare off evil spirits.
Cider was important commodity in farming; some labourers and farm hands were paid in cider for their efforts. This meant that a good harvest of apples was essential.
The villagers selected a young girl, known as the wassail queen, who was then lifted into tree to, in turn, lift the spirits of the trees, preparing them for the spring and growing season ahead.
The villagers then placed some bread among the trees’ branches, as an offering to the trees and to the resident robins, which were the good spirits that protected the trees and ensured a good harvest.
Cider was then poured around the roots, and the villagers sang a wassail song:
Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We’ve come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs
After the singing of the song, the villagers made a lot of noise and shot guns were fired — this is to wake the tree from its winter slumber and to scare off any unwanted spirits.