‘Wassailing’ sounds like something quaint, English and straight out of Shakespeare. Correct — except that it pre-dates Shakespeare by several hundred years, and is believed to have originated around 1,000 years ago.
The word ‘wassail’ is an old Anglo-Saxon term, a toast that means ‘be in good health’, as the custom involves visiting apple orchards and singing to the health of the trees to ensure a good harvest in the coming year. The lively ceremony aims to ‘awaken’ the trees and ward off evil spirits. Often the roots of apple trees are doused in cider, and cider-soaked toast or cake is hung from their branches. Closely associated with Christmas carols, the event is traditionally celebrated on Twelfth Night (5 or 6 January; or 17 January according to an ancient calendar no longer in use).
Wassailing originated in the cider-making regions of the west of England, including Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. As there are few commercial apple orchards in London, it was rarely found here — until now. Partly thanks to TV chefs popularising the ceremony, more and more wassailing events are now cropping up in London each year.
Some aim to continue Christmas and New Year celebrations, others involve local communities or raise money for charities — but all feature the traditional apple tree ceremony to a greater or lesser degree. The best ones have a carnival-like atmosphere, with colourfully costumed crowds singing, dancing, playing music, reading rhymes, banging drums and generally keeping this jolly old custom alive.
Here’s our round-up of London’s wassailing events in January 2016. Go with a healthy dose of curiosity and sense of humour — and don’t forget to wrap up warm.
When: 3 January 2016, 2pm.
Where: Starts outside Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT.
Part of wider Christmas and New Year festivities, this much-loved annual Bankside event features wassails led by Mummers (masked performers) and the Holly Man (a pagan folklore figure). The company of professional artists toast to the good health of the crowds, the River Thames and the Globe theatre, perform a play, lead a procession, dance and tell traditional folk tales. Cakes with a hidden bean and pea are distributed, and whoever finds them are crowned king and queen for the day. The colourful celebrations start outside the Globe theatre, and end with mince pies and mulled wine at the George Inn in Southwark.
What: Twelfth Night Feast.
When: 3 January 2016. 1-1.30pm; 2-2.30pm; 3-30pm.
Where: Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN.
Complementing the celebrations at Bankside, this is a storytelling event for children, who’ll learn all about wassailing apple trees and medieval Twelfth Night banquets.
What: Walthamstow Wassail.
When: 10 January 2016; 1.15pm-3.45pm (family wassail) and 1.45pm-8pm (wassail singing in parts).
Where: Starts at Vestry House Museum, Vestry Road, Walthamstow E17 9NH, before moving to several other locations.
This unique neighbourhood wassail is part new year celebration, part a toast to good things in the area in the coming year. Involving various aspects of the community, it includes singing processions through the streets, visiting local orchards and beehives to ensure bounty in the coming year, and raising awareness of nature in the area.
This year, Vestry House Museum’s mature apple trees will be blessed, and there’ll be singing by the locals at several different venues. There’s wassailing at artisan cheese and beer shop Froth and Rind, and Bee17, a beekeeping and honey-generating company whose profits go to fund green spaces in the locality.
The 2016 theme is ‘Mari Lwyd’ — a Welsh wassailing tradition that involves carrying a hobby horse on the streets, visiting neighbours and insulting each other (in Welsh verse), followed by plenty of eating and drinking. If you are a Walthamstow resident, you won’t want to miss this.
When: 16 January; 10am-1pm.
Where: Starts at the bandstand of West Ham Park, East Lodge, Upton Lane, E7 9PU.
This educational workshop, led by experts from The Urban Orchard Project, involves learning about fruit growing and toasting the apple trees. You’re encouraged to take ribbons and “shiny things” to dress the trees; and refreshments will include home-made cakes and mulled orchard fruit juice.
What: Midnight Apothecary Wassail.
When: 16 January; 5.30-10.30pm.
Where: Midnight Apothecary at The Brunel Museum, Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe, SE16 4LF.
Cost: £5; buy tickets from Design My Night website.
Midnight Apothecary is Brunel Museum’s highly acclaimed campfire-and-cocktail pop-up bar, located in a secret rooftop garden above Brunel’s Thames Tunnel in Rotherhithe. The special wassail-themed evening promises dancing around crab apple trees in their new orchard, pouring cider over their roots, and singing wassail carols led by traditional figures like the Wassail Queen, the Green Man and the Butler of the Feast. Take lanterns, torches and noisy instruments; there’ll be food and cocktails available.
When: 16 January 2016, 2.30pm.
Where: One Tree Hill Allotments, near Honor Oak Park station, SE23.
Located close to the Honor Oak Park station, the One Tree Hill Allotments boast a very traditional wassailing ceremony, followed by jacket potatoes, hot mulled juice and cider. Take some snacks and drinks to share, plus “noise-making instruments” to liven up the proceedings.
When: 22 January; 5pm-9pm.
Where: 110-112 Camley Street, King’s Cross, N1C 4PF.
Cost: Free, with optional donation to the Urban Orchard Project.
Alara Wholefoods hosts a hugely popular annual wassail party in support of the Urban Orchard Project, which works with urban communities in planting, restoring, managing and harvesting orchards to help us discover the pleasures of home-grown fruit. It’s a fun educational event that aims to raise awareness of healthy eating and sustainability.
Held at its King’s Cross premises, the event involves ‘awakening’ 200 apple trees in their orchard, the crowning of King Bean and Queen Pea, free refreshments such as fresh food and hot cider, and entertainment including dancing to a live band and kids’ activities. Three wassails will be held at 6pm, 7pm and 8pm; get there early.
Additionally, there’ll be information from the likes of North London Waste Authority and the Royal Society of Birds on a range of eco-friendly topics, such as ethical buying, local gardening and composting services. This year there’s also an apple pie bake off, so take your best pie or cake along to win a gigantic health food hamper.
Do you know of any other wassailing events in London? Let us know in the comments below.