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Well-met in Muddy Lanes: What it means to Wassail on Twelfth Night

Kate Gathercole explores the magical wassail tradition in Herefordshire, a ritual of gratitude for nature, symbolizing our deep connection with the earth and its bounty.

It was years ago now that I first found myself down a dark Herefordshire lane in a pub car park amongst fire sticks and garlanded hats. Damp with light rain and the fresh turn of the year, a small crowd of us gathered in awed confusion of the mistletoe-crowned Morris – faces smeared the colour of night sky, sharing cider from barrels, passing around torches and lanterns – preparing the wassail

It was January 6th – cold, old twelfth night – and we dutifully followed drums and bells down a long track away from the lights of the pub and into a field. Stumbling on matted tummocks of abandoned molehills, we came into a circle of trees woven with twelve small fires, a thirteenth burning brightly at their centre. Dances, songs and sticks merged in and out of the smoke, and we added shocked shouts to gunshots that rang into the quiet squat trees – banishing blight and pestilence for another year. And with pre-COVID confidence we all sipped at the warmed cider that passed between us in a dark wooden bowl, that then poured its gift of good health on the roots of the trees.

In our search for customs that describe an indigenous ‘honouring of the harvest’ for empire-building England, it is hard to find a reliable path back through the ancient dispossession of enclosures, witch hunts and clearances. The original systematic drive of England’s varied indigenous communities from their homes dates from the turn of the previous millennium and the harrying of the Norman Conquest. Unlike others in the awful now of this experience, the expulsions of the 1100s are an ancient grief, a trauma that has grown cold. It is in the interests of landowners that we should forget the mass exclusions from land that is our home.

‘Wassail’ means good health, and derives from the Old English or Norse ‘was hál’. The word describes the ancient, possibly Anglo-Saxon, tradition of honouring – land, friends, and strangers – reaching back to a time when perhaps we still experienced the roots of our connection with the earth beneath our feet. In medieval castles with their fine spiced wines the passing of a wassail bowl was a ritual drinking toast. In the wassail custom that passed around villages and farmyards it was both a sharing of good health for those well-met in muddy lanes or carolled on mid-winter doorsteps, and a ritual honouring for ‘bees and apple trees’, cattle and wheat fields – part of a practice of celebration and gratitude, a recognition of our complex entanglement in earth’s promise of harvest, a ritual of reciprocity and respect for the land that feeds us. 

Writing in The Folklore of Herefordshire in the early 1900s, Ella Mary Leather describes a toast associated with the local contemporary wassail custom: “Fill your cups my merry men all, For here’s the best ox in the stall, Oh he is the best ox, of thats there’s no mistake, And so let us crown him with the Twelfth cake”. The cake here was a large plum cake with a hole in the centre for the ox’s horn, and the tone quietly recalls the song ‘Derby Ram’ and its ‘unbuttoned’ awe at the magical immensity of a beast in close domesticated relation with the human. 

With our delusion of ourselves, humankind, as somehow separate from the earth – ‘other’ from its systems and creatures – we have grown out of the habit of giving gratitude, and even further away from understanding the shared reciprocal relationship inherent in that gratitude. Potawatomi mother, scientist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’, describes her father’s quiet morning ritual of offering – pouring the first and best of the fresh-brewed coffee onto the nourishing land. Gratitude was his daily practice, born of inherited understanding of a positively symbiotic relationship with the earth – “a homemade ceremony, a ceremony that makes a home.”

In the culture of contemporary wassail, alongside the hallooing and pot banging, the mud, performance and fireworks, we make offering to the animate apple trees. The best of the year’s cider is poured on the roots of the trees – ‘old apple tree we wassail thee’. Toast fragments delicately adorn the tree’s branches – to feed the tree’s spirit, and also the small birds that weave their own songs of gratitude into the tree’s plenty.

This Twelfth Night we will be out in the dusk, hoping the pale clarity of the winter sunset will spill itself into Herefordshire’s great river as she meanders slowly between the fields and a nearby orchard. We do simple DIY wassails now – with ritual and recipes learnt from traditional songs, and with neighbours who generously promise warmed cider in return for the ceremony that wakes and thanks their apple trees. We’ll stumble together amongst the trees, breathing the cold night air and feeling our connection with the earth beneath us. 

Perhaps the current wassail revival feeds our growing longing for that connection – addressing the place deep in our collective consciousness where we recognise ourselves as part of the encompassing ecosystem, not other, not separate. 

… and perhaps our wassail ceremony is met by a reciprocity from the earth. In the ancient rites of celebration amidst the apple trees, the magic of shared song and laughter, as we give our gratitude for all those lovely apples – hat fulls, cap fulls, three bushel bags full, and little heaps under the stairs – for a moment we come home to ourselves, and home to the land.