WHAT IS WASSAILING?
The word wassail derived from the Old Norse ‘Ves Heill’ from whence came the Old English ‘Wes Hal’, meaning be in good health.
In areas where apples are grown and especially in rural Devon, this is not just a festivity but a ritual which is taken seriously as the apple is an important part of the local economy so anything that can be done to help the trees produce a generous harvest is whole heartedly encouraged. This is especially true in Whimple. Apple orchards surround the village, a legacy of almost 100 years of cider making by Whiteways Cyder Company. The company closed in 1989; nevertheless, the majority of the orchards still exist and the apples still go to cider making companies.
It’s not really known when wassailing first started, but there is mention in a magazine published in 1791, of ‘the custom with the Devonshire people to after supper go into the orchard with large quantities of cider, having roasted apples pressed into it.’ In Whimple, it’s known that the ceremony took place at Rull Farm on ‘Old Twelfth Night ’in 1931. The fact that wassailing takes place on ‘Old Twelvy Night’ suggests that it has been a custom for many centuries, as England did not accept the Gregorian calendar until 1752 when the dates were adjusted by eleven days to realign with the solar year. This meant that Twelfth Night became the 6thJanuary, but the traditionalists retained the 17thJanuary as the appropriate day for wassailing.
A report in Noake's Worcestershire Relics reads, "At Whimple in Devon, the rectors were both cyder makers and cyder drinkers. The tenure of office of two of them covered a period of over a century and the last of these worthy divines lived to tell the story of how the Exeter coach set down the bent and crippled Dean at his door who, after three weeks 'cyder cure' at the hospitable rectory, had thrown his crutches to the dogs and turned his face homewards 'upright as a bolt.’ So, it would appear that the benefits to the NHS far outweigh the 'rotten socks' syndrome that is reputed to occur in extreme cases of over indulgence.
With this in mind, Whimple Wassailing which had fallen into abeyance when Jimmy Reynolds moved from Rull farm, was re-started in 1993 under the auspices of Whimple History Society who saw it as their duty to try to revive this festivity so vital to the well-being of the area.
Whilst the purpose of wassailing is the same in all areas where it is performed, there are local variations to the routines. Our ritual followed the traditional well-tried and tested ceremony of our predecessors with the Mayor in his robes of office and the Princess carrying lightly toasted bread in her delicately trimmed flasket, whilst the Queen, wearing her crown of Ivy, Lichen and Mistletoe, recites the traditional verse.
The original Whimple Incantation has been retained:-
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.
Her Majesty is then gently but manfully assisted up the tree in order to place the cyder-soaked toast in the branches whilst the assembled throng, accompanied by a group of talented musicians, sings the Wassail Song and dance around the tree. The mulled cider or 'Wassail Cup' is produced and everyone takes a sample with their 'Clayen Cup'. The guns are fired and a general rumpus is created by the crowd banging their saucepan lids and playing a variety of percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes to wake up the tree ready for the next crop.
More recently, no-one has assumed the role of Mayor or Beadle, in deference to the memory of the late John Shepherd. Mr Ed Hitchcock, dressed in a traditional styled farm smock, has led the recent processions in his own flamboyant style. The main rituals have otherwise remained intact.
Since January 2006 Jim Causley and friends have provided the musical accompaniment. A Wassail supper is now laid on at the local Cricket Club and this is followed by an impromptu folk session with Jim Causley and his friends.
Jim has a CD available which features the Whimple Wassail Song.
See Events page for date of next Wassail.