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British Christmas Traditions
by Mandy Barrow

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Woodlands Junior School is in the south-east corner of England

Wassailing has been associated with Christmas and New Year as far back as the 1400s. It was a way of passing on good wishes among family and friends.

What is Wassail?

Wassail is an ale-based drink seasoned with spices and honey. It was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. The Wassail bowl would be passed around with the greeting, 'Wassail'.

image: Holly man

There are three main ways of wassailing.

  1. The filling of a common bowl or cup often referred to as a 'Loving Cup' and passing it around a room to be shared.
  2. Taking a bowl of Wassail around houses
  3. A celebration of the apple harvest and the blessing of the fruit or trees.


Where does the name Wassail come from?

Wassail gets its name from the Old English term "waes hael", meaning "be well". It was a Saxon custom that, at the start of each year, the lord of the manor would shout 'waes hael'. The assembled crowd would reply 'drinc hael', meaning 'drink and be healthy'.

image: wassaillingAs time went on, the tradition was carried on by people going from door to door, bearing good wishes and a wassail bowl of hot, spiced ale. In return people in the houses gave them drink, money and Christmas fare (special foods eaten during Christmas time e.g. mince pies) and they believed they would receive good luck for the year to come.

What was in the Wassail?

The contents of the bowl varied in different parts of the country, but a popular one was known as 'lambs wool'. It consisted of hot ale, roasted crab apples, sugar, spices, eggs, and cream served with little pieces of toast. It was the toast floating on the top that made it look like lamb's wool.


A Wassailing Carol

One of the most popular Wassailing Carols went like this:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wassailing,
So fair to be seen:

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you,
A happy New Year,
And God send you,
A happy new year.


Wassailing of Apple Trees

applesApple tree wassailing is a ceremony which involves drinking to the health of the apple trees.

“Wassaile the trees that they may beare
You many a plum and many a pear
For more or less fruits they will bring
As you do give them wassailing.”

The Apple trees were sprinkled with wassail to ensure a good crop. Villagers would gather around the apple trees with shotguns or pots and pans and made a tremendous racket to raise the Sleeping Tree Spirit and to scare off demons.

The biggest and best tree was then selected and cider poured over its roots. Pieces of toast soaked in cider were placed in the forks of branches. The wassail song was sung or chanted as a blessing or charm to bring a good apple harvest the following year.

This custom was especially important during a time when part of a labourer's wages was paid in apple cider. Landlords needed a good apple crop to attract good workers. Wassailing was meant to keep the tree safe from evil spirits until the next year's apples appeared.

Apple Tree Wassail
Oh apple tree, we'll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord does know where we may go
To be merry another year

To grow well and to bear well
And so merrily let us be
Let every man drink up his glass
And a health to the old apple tree
Brave boys, and a health to the old apple tree

Today the wassail songs are being sung again at farms and pubs in several parts of England by people who decided to revive the old custom of blessing the crops and singing to good health.

Watch a film about Wassaillng, called "Toast in the Tree"


Wassailing Events

January 17th, old Twelfth Night is the traditional date for Wassailing.

Wassailing the Apple Tree, Butchers Arms in Carhampton, Somerset, Mid January (about 17 January)

Caroline Doherty from Somerset emailed to say:

"We go wassailing every year at a friends’ farm.

They reintroduced the custom as a yearly party for all friends and relatives when their children (and ours) were tiny. We walk over the hill and down the steep slope to their farm, with over 1000 apple trees, some of which we have helped plant. It is usually freezing!

We get a glass of warm cider on arrival, then get prised out of the house – find the right wellies if you can, they all look the same, and the dogs will have stolen some.. and it is out to the trees.

The vicar blesses the trees, and one of the boys climbs a tree to put toast in it for the birds that keep the insect pests down.. by eating them! Then wassail mulled cider is poured round the roots of a chosen tree, and we sing the wassail songs and have a specially written poem read for the Company assembled. The Farmers’ Dad lets off his shotgun, ‘to wake the trees up and get them to get a move on making apple buds’, and we all make a huge noise to give them the hint.

There’s a big bonfire, which we light and admire and get warmed up by.

Then its back to the house for more wassail cider and to tuck into the feast. – You take some baking, (which you make something to do with apples,) for everyone to share. People take instruments and play music, and what with that and the feast and dogs fighting happily and friends you havn’t seen for ages and children ‘ooh havn’t you grown’ since last year…….. its great fun!"

First Saturday in January

Wassailing, Old Mill Farm Bolney, Sussex
18:00 Apple Howling or Wassailing is an ancient custom in which the evil spirits are driven out and the good spirits are encouraged to produce a good apple crop for the following year's cider.

Second Saturday in January

Firle Wassail, East Sussex
18:00-23:00 Middle Farm BN8 6LJ. Hunters Moon Morris Men. Torch procession, bonfire, food, haystack stage, dance floor.

2010- 16th January
2011- 15th January
2012- 14th January
2013- 12th January


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Mandy is the creator of the Woodlands Resources section of the Woodlands Junior website. 
The two websites and are the new homes for the Woodlands Resources.

Mandy left Woodlands in 2003 to work in Kent schools as an ICT Consulatant. 
She now teaches computers at The Granville School and St. John's Primary School in Sevenoaks Kent.