Old Twelfth Night – it’s Wassail Time

One of my great pleasures is to hear traditional songs being sung and I know quite a number by heart. A favourite is the old Wassail song sung on Wassail Day. The Cotswolds proved to be one of the last places where these old songs were commonly sung and they were written down for posterity by Cecil Sharp in the early 1900’s.

Here we go a-wassailing, all through the leaves so green, here we go a-wassailing, so early to be seen…”, goes the song and tomorrow, is Wassail Day.

Purists hold wassail on Old Twelfth Night, the 17th January (as against the ‘new’ date of the 6th), which is the date prior to 1752 when the calendar was changed and days ‘lost’. So wassailing will take place as night falls in orchards throughout England. However, with the dwindling number of orchards, the ceremony takes place less and less. The photo below is of a newly planted orchard at daffodil time.

I have never been to a wassail in the Cotswolds but, years ago, when I spent much of my early adult time on Exmoor, I wassailed the orchard attached to a local pub. As darkness fell, we carried flaming torches amongst the trees, drank to their health and placed pieces of toast (photo below) dipped in cider amongst the branches. And we sang the wassail song and many other old songs too. And just as we began to relax, and the cider take hold of us, guns were fired through the branches to scare off bad demons, bringing us back to our senses. That orchard has since been built upon and the tradition there lost.

The blackened faces of morris men, that attend some wassails, are also there to frighten evil spirits, for this has it’s roots in pagan times and has nothing whatsoever to do with race, as is now sometimes thought. PC means that many morris men no longer do this. The ceremony shown on the video below has both morris men and a wassail queen. I don’t recall seeing the morris when I took part, or a young virgin for that matter, but perhaps that is due to too much cider and too many years passing. There is no wassail singing on the video and only a glimpse of morris dancing – the latter I hope to write about, with other local customs, in the future.


If the wassail works there really will be “…apples down in capfuls, buckets, bushels, bags and all…” and, if not, a lot of fun will have been had regardless. And in the final words of the old song, readers, may I “…wish you, send you a healthy new year…”

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6 thoughts on “Old Twelfth Night – it’s Wassail Time

  1. Thank you for telling us about this day. I know the song, but did not know the tradition behind it. I have taken English History classes in college, but have never come upon this tradition.

  2. These old customs don't usually feature in history classes as it's always the 'big' events that are taught. But it's the quirky and often bizarre things that go on in every day life that really make a nation what it is.I should add, 'though, that we don't spend all our time wandering about with bells attached to our legs or firing guns at apple trees – the English may be a bit eccentric but we're not that eccentric!Johnson

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