• Proto-Indo-European Religion
• Indo-European Languages
• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
• Apple Tree Wassails
• Other Wassail Songs
• Early English Text Society
• Book References
|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.
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
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
Version A. from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1791
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full
Version B. from the Shekerjian book which has music
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Here’s to thee, old apple tree
Well mayest thou bud,
And well mayest thou blow,
well mayest thou bear
Of apples enow!
Hats full, caps full,
Good bushel sacks full,
My pockets too.
Give us a crop
Of good apples ripe,
Red and well-rounded
The good juicy type!
Here is our ale,
Now drink of it well,
And give us good
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
Every twig, apples big,
Every bough, apples enow.
(and then shout!)
Hats full, caps full
Five bushel sacks full
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)
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 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
And there’s cider running out of every gutter hole.
Down here in the muddy lane, there sits an old red fox,
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.
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.
Apples enow, hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls,
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
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.
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
Lily-white, lily-white, lily-white smock,
Please to come down
and pull back the lock.
For it’s our wassail, jolly wassail,
Joy come to our jolly
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
Good health to your house, may your wishes come true
us some cider and we’ll bring down the moon.
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
O the ringles and the jingles and the tenor of the song goes
O the tenor of the song goes merrily.
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.
But 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 songs being sung at the Hemyock Castle Wassail which they are doing for their cider orchard.
At the moment, this page comes up with a big virus warning, so I am disconnecting the link. It’s at http://www.hemyockcastle.co.uk/wassail.htm, and you can carry it into the URL if you dare.
But 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
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.
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
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.
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
• 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
© 2011, last updated 12/29/14, at piereligion.org/applewassail.html