January 2024: Local history with Julian Lee-Jones

WASSAILING took place each New Year when villagers danced and sang in their village orchard to frighten away bad spirits and to thank good spirits, the Green Man, for the trees’ wellbeing. 

The pagan ceremony was reintroduced in Bristol by former barrister the late Frank Buckley at his orchard at Cribbs Causeway. Since Frank’s death and loss of his orchard the Wassail has been performed by community orchards in Bristol.  In recent years even business-savvy owners of commercial cider apple orchards have realised, as did our pagan forefathers, that Wassailing improves their harvest. Often shotguns or fireworks are fired into the branches to frighten away bad spirits.  But what of the meaning of wassail? The Anglo – Saxon Wassail Bowl  –  a cup of mead, cider or spiced ale drunk on New Year’s Eve or Day – derives  from the everyday greeting Wæs hal!  Hal is the ancestor of the modern English word hale, so wæs hal literally meant “Be healthy!”  

A web search for ‘Wassailing’ read: “Bonfires, pots, pans, clatter, commotion and a volley of shotgun blasts! The ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition of Wassailing involves waking tree spirits and blessing the orchard and shooing off pesky evil demons to ensure a bountiful crop in the year to come. Hot mulled cider and pizza nibbles are provided in abundance to keep you warm during our winter celebration. January, so remember to wrap up warmand bring something noisy, to help us scare the demons away from our precious apple trees”.

The Anglo Saxon greeting wæs hal gradually contracted to wassail, referring to the act of toasting someone’s health.  In accordance with Papal instructions, missionaries to these shores ‘Christianised’ the pagan ceremony by renaming the Wassail Bowl ‘Poc’ulum Carita’tis’ (The Loving Cup), the name still used by London Livery companies and fraternal organisations, while universities and colleges generally call it The Grace Cup or the Pledge Cup.. 

At least one toasting ceremony takes place in Bristol when the Grace Cup usually accompanies a parting grace. The ceremony is also a reminder on the 18th March  AD978 of the assassination of King Edward, (Edward the Martyr), which took place in Corfe Castle. In the modern ceremony the cup is passed around the table with each drinker pledging the safety of the next person by turning to guard their back before the toast taker passes it on to guard the next persons back and so on until all have safely partaken.