At its very heart the custom of wassailing an apple or other fruit tree was a fertility rite. These days it seems like an obscure practice that has faded from history. However, it was once common in the English countryside. It was an ancient winter tradition in Europe as well.
There is reason to believe that this began as a pagan custom to promote fertility of the tree. It existed in the 6th century. The custom largely died out starting in the 19th century. Its modern use is as a festivity rather than an agricultural practice.
This tradition could occur on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, Epiphany, or on the eve of Old Twelfth Night. This was much more than just an occasion to
drink hard cider or ale. The overall aim was to ensure the abundance and health of the tree so it would be fruitful. People also believed this could drive away evil spirits. They also saw it as a way to urge the tree to grow.
It was considered a very good sign if this winter day was bright and sunny so that it shone on the tree. An old English rhyme states, “If wold Christmas Day be fair and bright, Ye’d have apples to your hearts delight.”
Some sources say that the custom of wassailing the trees began when people poured cider on the roots of apple trees. The purpose was to keep evil spirits away from the tree.
Gerald S. Lestz says in Tree Lore and Legends that an old Pennsylvania Dutch belief was that “fruit trees will not bear unless they have been wassailed.”
People carried a bowl of hot wassail to the orchard. They poured this in cups and drank a toast to the health of the tree. They also sang to the trees. In some locations this ritual that could include songs and dances around the tree, and decorating the tree.
In some cases, they lit fires, hit the trees with sticks and made lots of noise either by blasting on a horn, firing shots, shouting as they sang, or howling. The most abundant tree of all was singled out for special honors. They performed a dance around that particular tree and either sang or recited blessings. Sometimes, they also poured wassail on the tree roots. They also left something in the tree for the birds, such as salt or a piece of cake.
In some locations, men went from house to house blessing the trees. For this, they were rewarded with food, money, or ale.
This custom of wassailing the tree eventually gave rise to the drinking of wassail and a traditional toast during the holiday season. There are numerous versions of wassailing songs that have survived over the years. One of these is included on the CD by the Christmas Revels. The CD’s program notes prints the words for one of these songs. It was called Here We Come A-wassailing, and was from the Yorkshire area. Some of the pertinent lines are: “Old apple tree, we’ll wassail thee, and hoping thou will bear…To blow well and to bear well…Here’s health to the old apple tree!”