Anne here. We're coming to the end of our daily Christmastide posts, celebrating the twelve days of Christmas – Nicola will be presenting the last one tomorrow. But today, the 5th January, brings us Twelfth Night, celebrated in song and verse — and of course in the play by Shakespeare.
Traditionally on Twelfth Night we take down the Christmas decorations, because by 6th January they're supposed to be down. Don't ask me why — it's said to be bad luck if you don't. It's also the day to drink to the health of your apple trees by toasting them in wassail, a hot cidery punch, which sounds like a lot more fun than packing up your decorations and ornaments for another year, which I always think is rather a melancholy activity.
The word Wassail comes from the old Saxon "was hail" which means "be whole" (hail being the same as our modern day hale) and in the olden days, you prepared your hot wassail, carried it in a big wooden or earthenware bowl down to the orchard, to the oldest tree in the orchard. There you drank to the health of your apple trees, to awaken them from the winter cold, and to scare away the evil spirits in the hope of a good harvest to come. And as a gift to the good spirits, you soaked a piece of toast in the wassail and hung it in the tree, and poured a mug of the drink over their roots.
In some places there was a Wassail Queen, in others a small child might be sent up the tree with the soaked toast. And in plenty of places people dipped their own toast in the drink to sop it up. Obviously in the cold of winter this would be a pretty popular activity, especially as you had a noble reason for doing it.
A song might be sung or an incantation chanted. Here's one (from Wikipedia):
Here's to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An' all under one tree.
Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow! [enough] Hats-full!
Caps-full! Bushel, bushel sacks-full!
And my pockets full, too! Hurra!
These days in parts of England where the old traditions still hold, some people still go out and wassail their apple trees, for reasons of tradition or belief or simply for fun. Me, I think it's a delightful and delicious tradition, and one well worth following.
There are dozens of recipes on the web for wassail. Here's one recipe and here's a quick and easy one. And while I'm all in favor of drinking the health of apple trees (not that I have any) it's hot in Australia at the moment and hot wassail isn't really my er, cup of tea in the heat. So if you're in my neck of the woods (or orchards) you could always try this recipe for cold wassail-spiked champagne. It's all research, you know.
Have you ever wassailed a tree? Do you like hot punch? Are you taking your decorations down, or will you leave them up for a bit longer? How was your Christmas?