Apple Tree Wassails

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Apple Tree Wassails
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The word wassail is used for the activity of drinking to the health of someone, or in this case, drinking to the health of the apple trees. Apple Tree Wassails are the songs that are sung to the health of the apple trees in English; the expression is also used for the overall celebration which usually takes place in the orchards or wherever there is an apple tree. Some people are reported to wassail every single tree in the orchard, others just pick one tree to stand in for all the rest. The date for wassailing apple trees varies widely, being Christmas Eve in some areas, and Twelfth Night Eve (Twelfth Night is January 6th) in others (pp. 386-387, Robert Hunt). New Year’s Day in the morning was the traditional time for “Apple Howling” when boys beat the trees with willow rods and chanted rhymes. In many areas, people drink to the trees on January 17th which corresponds to Jan. 6th before the calendar was changed in England in 1752, and that gives an idea of how conservative this custom is.

As this is a folk custom, it is quite variable. Following are the main points gathered from various sources, including folklore reports as well as the activities observed on YouTube.
• Make a bonfire in the orchard to keep warm. If it’s dark out, torches or lanterns will be needed.
• Drink cider and pour some on the roots of the trees. All references to cider in this article are understood to refer to the alcoholic kind, however the non-alcoholic variety can be used. In any case, cider is a very nutritious food and a valuable commodity and that is mainly what people are thanking the apple trees for, though they thank them for the apples too.
• A favorite tree may be “dressed” by tying a ribbon on a branch. Wool yarn or a strip of cloth may be used.
• Stand around the tree in a circle and sing or chant the verses, while drinking to the health or “wassailing” the apple trees.
• Many people dance around the trees in a circle.
• Noise makers are used which can include deep-toned drums but some people bang on pots or trays to wake the trees, and people stamp their feet. Farmers sometimes shoot off their guns in the orchards to make a loud noise.
• Nowadays, some people (especially children) dress in scarey costumes to scare bad spirits away.
• Cake or toast is soaked in cider and put up in the branches for the spirits.

Wassailing apple trees in winter, with ribbon and snow In modern days, wassailing the apple trees is celebrated with children during the day time, but adults generally celebrate at night with plenty of hard cider. This can get rather boisterous. If people are wassailing the trees in an orchard near you, you might as well join in because you aren’t going to get any sleep.

Following are the most popular or best-known songs and their context, and the words. There are several very well-known songs which may be sung or chanted. Almost all Apple Tree Wassails have the same name in published sources, so I give the first line to keep them straight. I was not able to find the music written down for most of them, but since almost all of these are being sung on YouTube, it should be easy to learn them, and the links are included.

No. 1 Here’s to Thee, Old Apple Tree
This has the first line “Here’s to thee, old apple tree...” It is said to be from South Devon, and it is quoted in Gentleman’s Magazine, 1791, p. 402-403, which is available on google books. I have found only the words from this version, with only one verse. There is another very similar song, with words only slightly different and music written for it published in A Book of Christmas Carols edited by Haig and Regina Shekerjian, but I don’t know how authentic that is.

Version A. from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1791

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!

Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel--bushel--sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

Version B. from the Shekerjian book which has music

Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Here’s to thee, old apple tree

Verse 1.
Well mayest thou bud,
And well mayest thou blow,
And well mayest thou bear
Of apples enow!

Hats full, caps full,
Good bushel sacks full,
My pockets too.
Hurrah! Wassail!

Verse 2.
Give us a crop
Of good apples ripe,
Red and well-rounded
The good juicy type!

Verse 3.
Here is our ale,
Now drink of it well,
And give us good apples
Of which we can tell.

Note on language: enow is a dialect form of “enough.” It is sometimes misunderstood as “now.”

Although the first verse is one of the most widely quoted rhymes, I couldn’t find any performances of it, not even a chant.

No. 2 Apple Howling Chant
Apple Howling is especially the custom in Sussex, where it is reported possibly as early as 1585 CE. Boys would go and howl at the trees on New Years Day and beat them with sticks. This chant is said to be from the 19th century, from Sussex, Surrey. The words are from Conrad Bladey’s site, with additional words quoted from the YouTube performance by the Hull Wassail, where they are written on the page. The first verse is chanted (three times) so there is no music.

Stand fast root, bear well top.
Pray good God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big,
Every bough, apples enow.

(and then shout!)
Hats full, caps full
Five bushel sacks full
And a little heap under the stairs
Holla, boys, holla!
(and blow the horn!)

The Apple Howling Chant is performed by the Hull Wassail (Part 6) on YouTube.

No. 3 Here We Come A-Wassailing (Apple Version)
This has the first line “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green...” which is similar to a wassailing song sung at the Winter Solstice but this song has verses about apples and it has a slightly different tune. The words are given on the YouTube site (link follows) and also on Digital Tradition as Here We Come A Wassailing.

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering so fairly to be seen,
Now is winter time, strangers travel far and near;
And we wish you, send you, a happy new year.

Bud and blossom, bud and blossom, bud and bloom and bear,
So we may have plenty of cider all year.
Hatfulls and capfulls and in bushel bags and all
And there’s cider running out of every gutter hole.

Down here in the muddy lane, there sits an old red fox,
Starvin’ and shiverin’ and lickin’ his old chops.
Bring us out your table and spread it if you please,
And give us hungry wassailers a bit of bread and cheese.

I’ve got a little purse and it’s made of leather skin,
A little silver sixpence, it would line it well within,
Now is winter time, strangers travel far and near;
And we wish you, send you, a happy new year.

Here We Come A-Wassailing (Apple Tree Wassail) is sung on YouTube, as part of the Hull Wassail, (Part 7).

No. 4 Old Apple Tree
This has the first line “Old Apple Tree, we’ll wassail thee....” although it is also called the Apple Tree Wassail. The words and music are from William Crockford, of Bratton, Minehead, and they were collected by Cecil Sharp, who states that the tune is a major version of the Miller of Dee. The song is published with words and music (song #128 on p. 72) and notes in Folk-songs from Somerset, gathered and edited by Cecil Sharp, and published in 1904. The text is available on the net at Folk-songs from Somerset on the IMSLP site (in the fifth series).

Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear.
The Lord does know where we shall be
To be merry another year.

To blow well and to bear well
And so merry let us be;
Let every man drink up his cup
And health to the old apple tree.

Spoken:
Apples enow, hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls,
tallets ole fulls, barn’s floor fulls, little heap under the stairs.

Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
(Shout, stamp and fire off guns).

Note on language: A tallet is a loft where apples are stored; the word is borrowed into English from Welsh. The last line should probably read, “tallets all full, barn floors full, a little heap under the stairs.”

Cecil Sharp gives a detailed description of the custom of wassailing the apple trees as reported to him by Mr. Crockford who participated every year (pp. 91-94). Sharp writes that:

He told me that they wassailed the apple trees at Bratton every year on the 17th of January....they would meet, he said, in the orchard about seven or eight o’clock in the evening, join hands and then dance in a ring around an apple tree singing the words given in the text. At the conclusion of the song, they stamped on the ground, fired off their guns and made as much noise as they could, while they shouted out in unison the [spoken] words appended to the song. Having placed some pieces of toast soaked in cider on one of the branches, they proceed to another tree, around which they repeated the ceremony. I asked him what happened to the toast. He replied, “All gone in the morning; some say the birds eat it, but...” I failed to extract from him his interpretation of the disappearance, but it was evident that he did not believe in the “bird” theory. I then enquired what effect the wassailing produced upon the trees. He avoided a direct answer, but said, “We always have plenty of apples hereabouts.”

People also wassailed their beehives, but the “Bee Worsels” that I could find were heavily christianized. They are also published by Sharp, on pp. 93-94.

This song is performed by many people and is widely available. It is No. 23, called the Apple Tree Wassail on the Christmas Revels: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice CD, which had an original release date of 1977; this is a re-release of 1995. There are several excellent performances on YouTube. My favorite version of Old Apple Tree is sung by a woman in London and she repeats it over and over, so it’s easy to learn. The Wassail - Three Cheers for the Apple Tree is also sung by the Gladly Solemn Sound choir and the Old Apple Tree is chanted by the Jolly Morris dancers in Coventry (at the beginning of the video).

The song is also recorded by John Kirkpatrick who first tells the story of the Apple Tree Man which is quite charming though a bit difficult to understand since it is in a country dialect. Kirkpatrick and friends then sing the song on the Wassail! A Traditional Celebration of an English Midwinter CD, and you can hear the Apple Tree Man story and the Apple Tree Wassail on MySpace.

No. 5 Coventry Wassail Song
I don’t actually know of a name for this song, but it is sung by the Jolly Morris dancers, as part of a traditional apple wassail at Coventry, in a continuation of the previous video. It just has one verse:

Oh apple, apple tree,
we have come to wassail thee.
Will you bear some fruit for me
When the season changes?

Having sung that verse one time, the Jolly Morris dancers continue to use the tune of the Coventry Wassail Song to do a very nice stick dance around the trees.

It is customary to dance around the trees, and although it is beyond the scope of this article (and beyond my ability) to record the dances, there are some good ones on YouTube that look like they would be fairly easy to learn. Besides the Jolly Morris dancers at Coventry, there are several dances by the Raving Maes, a women's morris team, such as the Hull Wassail, Part 2, Opening Dance; Hull Wassail, Part 4, Stick Dance; and Hull Wassail, Part 8, Last Dance which is my favorite. Another set of dances is by the Apple Tree Morris in Sonoma, California with a Stick Dance and a Scarf Dance. I’m not sure how authentic any of that is, but they look like they are having fun and the music is very nice.

No. 6 Apple Tree Wassailing Song
The first line is “Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white pin...” but in some versions it begins, “O lily-white lily, o lily-white pin....” This song has a beautiful melody, and like most traditional English carols it has a distinct “lift” in it. Generally wassailing the apple trees was done in the orchard and is separate from the custom of wassailing the neighbors for which there are many songs. However sometimes after wassailing the trees, people went and visited their neighbors too and this song clearly describes that activity and includes references to it in the chorus. The words are published on Conrad Bladey’s site and on the Mostly Norfolk folksong site but the words are rewritten here based on how people sing it. The source is the Watersons, who say that it is from the area of Devon and Somerset.

Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white pin,
Please to come down and let us come in.
Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white smock,
Please to come down and pull back the lock.

Chorus:
For it’s our wassail, jolly wassail,
Joy come to our jolly wassail.
How well they may bloom, how well they may bear,
That we may have apples and cider next year.

Master and mistress, oh, are you within?
Please to come down and let us come in.
Good health to your house, may your wishes come true
Now bring us some cider and we’ll bring down the moon.

Chorus

There was an old farmer that had but one cow (start stamping!)
And how to milk her, he didn’t know how.
He put his old cow all in his old barn,
And a little more cider won’t do us no harm.

Harm, me boys, harm, Harm, me boys, harm,
A little more cider won’t do us no harm.

Chorus

O the ringles and the jingles and the tenor of the song goes
Merrily merrily merrily
O the tenor of the song goes merrily.

Shouted:
Apples, apples!
Hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls,
Little heaps under the stairs!
Hip hip hooray!

The Watersons sing this song on the For Pence and Spicy Ale CD, but that's honestly not my favorite version. There is also a version by Jon Boden and friends of the Apple Tree Wassail Song on the Folk Song a Day website, which at the moment you can click on it and listen to it streaming. And there is a really spirited version of the Apple Tree Wassailing Song sung by the Madison Youth Choir on YouTube, which I particularly like because they are pounding their feet against the risers.

There are even more songs for which we have the music, see for example the Hemyock Castle Wassail which they are doing for their cider orchard. The circle dance sounds really great.

There are many additional chants and rhymes for which we don’t know the music. They may not have had any music since some of these are chanted and not sung, or perhaps the melodies have been lost since the words were written down. One nice rhyme that I like because it mentions both apples and pears is lifted off Conrad Bladey’s site. There it is attributed to Cornworthy, Devon, 1805 but there is no other information.

Huzza, Huzza, in our good town
The bread shall be white and the liquor be brown
So here, my old fellow, I drink to thee
And the very health of each other tree.
Well may ye blow, well may ye bear
Blossom and fruit, both apple and pear.
So that every bough and every twig
May bend with a burden both fair and big.
May ye bear us and yield us fruit such a store
That the bags and chambers and house run o’er.

#recipe
Wassail Recipe or Hot Mulled Apple Cider Recipe
It’s essential to have some cider to wassail the trees, so here is a recipe. It was lifted off www.cooks.com and I have no idea where they got it. It is just included here for convenience.

1 quart of (hard) apple cider (or use non-alcoholic cider or apple juice)
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 sticks of cinnamon
8 cloves
8 allspice berries
Optional, 1/4 cup orange juice, and slices of oranges to float in the bowl.
Heat to boiling and serve hot. Make more.

Conclusions
Although it is not known how old the custom of wassailing apple trees is, the very widespread character of it and the multiple variations in the songs just among English-speaking people indicate that it is ancient. There are parallels among all the northern Europeans, described as a group in the Golden Bough which gives examples in Germany, Scandinavia and the Slavic countries, and with many additional descriptions in folk lore literature in various countries. The performance of apple tree wassails is perfectly in accord with the Indo-European ritual of offering to a Goddess, in a symbolic way, a small portion of what she has given as an acknowledgment of her gifts and as thanks. Offering cakes and ale, or in this case, cake dipped in cider, for thanks and for future prosperity is exactly typical of the Indo-European ritual of offering.

References for Apple Tree Wassails
Apple Wassails on Conrad Bladey’s website.
Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt, Chatto and Windus, London, 1903.
A Book of Christmas Carols edited by Haig and Regina Shekerjian, arranged by Robert de Cormier, Harper & Row Publ., New York, 1963.
Apple Tree Wassail by the Watersons on the Mostly Norfolk page.
Folk Songs from Somerset by Cecil Sharp, Simkin & Co. Ltd, London, 1904; on the IMSLP site at Folk Songs from Somerset.

This page was published as pierce.yolasite.com/applewassail on Yola, but Yola has gone out of business, so the website has been migrated here. This page is copyright; but as far as I know the lyrics to the songs are in the public domain.

© 2011, last updated 1/10/2013, at piereligion.org/applewassail.html