• Proto-Indo-European Religion
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• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
• Apple Tree Wassails
• Other Wassail Songs
|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.
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
Version A. from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1791
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Hats full! Caps full!
Version B. from the Shekerjian book which has music
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Hats full, caps full,
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
Stand fast root, bear well top.
(and then shout!)
The Apple Howling Chant is performed by the Hull Wassail (Part 6) on YouTube.
No. 3 Here We Come A-Wassailing (Apple Version)
Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Bud and blossom, bud and blossom, bud and bloom and bear,
Down here in the muddy lane, there sits an old red fox,
I’ve got a little purse and it’s made of leather skin,
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
Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee,
To blow well
and to bear well
Hip, hip, hip, hooroo!
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
Oh apple, apple tree,
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
Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white pin,
Master and mistress, oh, are you within?
There was an old farmer that had but one cow (start stamping!)
Harm, me boys, harm, Harm, me boys, harm,
O the ringles and the jingles and the tenor of the song goes
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
1 quart of (hard) apple cider (or use non-alcoholic cider or apple juice)
References for Apple Tree Wassails
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