By no means is ‘wassailing’ an exclusive Dartmoor custom, it can be found all across Devon and indeed the other cider making counties. The tradition is said to have originally been an ancient pagan fertility rite. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo Saxon words ‘waes hal‘ which meant be ‘thou of good health’. The earliest mention the wassailing custom is in the Devonshire poet Herrick’s ‘Hesperides which was written in the year 1647;
“Wassail the trees that they may bear
You, many a plum, and many a pear;
For more or less fruits they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing.“
Lyson in his book; ‘Magna Britannia’ wrote:
” A feast of hot wheat-flour cakes dipped in cider preceded the ceremony in western parts of the county (Devonshire) in 1851. After the meal the people went into the orchards where a piece of wheat-cake was placed in the fork of a tree and cider thrown over it. Muskets and fowling pieces were then fired by the men, while the women and children made as much noise as they possibly could.“
Wassailing occurs on the Old Christmas Eve. It is important to note the calendar change of 1753 when eleven days were in effect ‘lost’. The traditional day for wassailing was the eve of Twelfth Night, which by the modern calendar is now the 5th of January. But to get to the old Twelfth Night the lost eleven days have to be added which today takes the original wassailing day to the 16th of January. Some places like Ashburton moved with the times and held their wassailing on the 5th of January. The ceremony consists of offerings being made to the spirits of the apple trees to ensure a fruitful harvest the following year. This would be accompanied by the folk making as much noise of possible, either shouting, beating pots, and later in time firing of volleys of gun shots into the branches. The purpose of this was to scare away any evil spirits that may be harmful to the coming crop. Then the farmer, his family and workers would then gather around the best fruit bearing trees and recite or sing one of the following verses:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou may’st bud
And whence thou may’st blow!
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps Full!
Bushel, bushel, sacks full!
And my pockets full too! Hooray!
Old Apple Tree, Old Apple Tree,
We wassail thee and hope that thou wilt bear;
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
For to bear well and to bloom well,
So merry let us be;
Let every man take off his hat and shout to thee,
Old Apple Tree, Old Apple Tree,
We wassail thee and hope that thou wilt bear
Cap fulls’ Three bushel bag fulls, And a little heap under the stairs.
or a slightly more modern version:
Here’s to thee, good apple tree;
To bear and blow, apples enow,
This year, next year, and the year after too;
Hatsful, capsful, three bushel bagsful,
And pay the farmer well.
Having done so offerings of toast would then be placed on the branches of the tree and cider or ale would then be sprinkled on the roots of the tree. The wassailers would then noisily make their way to the next tree shouting, banging and shooting and the ceremony would be repeated. In some places instead of leaving offerings of toast the tree would be pelted with roasted apples. There is one tradition which even involved hoisting a small boy up into the tree where he would yell out “tit tit, more to eat,” after which a meal of bread, cheese, and cider was handed to him, the boy was said to represent the spirit of the tree. Some farms would only let the men take part in the wassailing and when they returned to the farmhouse they would find that the women had locked them out. Be it snowing, raining or freezing the men were made to stay outside until they had guessed what type of meat was cooking on the spit. Usually it was be as obscure a meat as possible to make the task harder. Whoever correctly guessed the type would then be rewarded with a small gift. There was a belief, especially amongst the women, that if this custom be omitted then the following harvest would be doomed to failure. Once the ceremony had finished the party of wassailers would return to the farmhouse for festive food and yet more cider. There is one story dating from the mid 1800s which tells of such a party returning to the farmhouse to find that the awaiting hogshead of cider had been completely drained. A fair old rumpus ensued as the men tried to find the culprit when suddenly a piskie appeared and in a high voice chirruped, “I sipped once“, and with that vanished.
But why should this tradition be so important? Nothing of its like was carried out with the sheep, cattle or corn. It could illustrate the importance of cider in the early days. All of the farms on the moorland edges would have had cider orchards and the apple crop would determine the farmers income. Not only was it a saleable commodity in many cases it formed a large part of the workers wages. Clearly this saved the farmer a great deal of money as it was always cheaper to pay in cider as opposed to coin. Also cider was a popular drink in the farmhouse so it was also a necessity as far as the house keeping went – see Cider. However, could there be a much deeper root to this tradition insomuch as the Christian belief that the snake who gave Eve the apple was thought of as the Devil and all his evil connections? Therefore in this light might it just be that evil spirits like the snake live in apple trees and in order for the trees to be productive they need to be banished?