Wassails (and wassailing) are a traditional folk celebration specific to British cider culture. As a lover of global cider culture, and a Brit, its more exciting than Christmas for me and so causes a perpetual problem when trying to document them. It took me 4 years of getting them wrong to realise that you can either worship, or observe - not both and certainly not with any conviction. Too much cider fuelled psychobilly Bluegrass excitement cripples my photographic discipline, although I've managed to snap a few classic moments in the process.
To explain briefly what a wassail is: its a tradition, ancient in origin, where people gather on old twelfth night (Jan 17th), often in atrocious weather on one of the coldest nights of the year, to give thanks for their bountiful harvest and ceremonially give back to the oldest and largest apple tree in the cider orchard. When assembled beneath it, they return cider to the tree, pouring an offering around the base of the trunk and then placing toast (often soaked it cider) up into the branches. The crowd must then make as much loud noise as they can together in an effort to drive off any evil that may be present (often using shotguns.) The toast is hoped to attract Robins over the following weeks to help guard the orchard from evil for the remainder of the year. Everyone then eats, drinks, laughs, sings and generally 'lets go' into the early hours. That date is significant as its near enough midwinter so it also acts as an acknowledgement of seasonal change and lengthening days. Psychologically and practically, this was always an important time for ancient cultures in Northern Europe.
These days wassails are mixed and varied both in terms of quality (some of truly fantastic) but also in approach. There are various regional idiosyncrasies, such as the Welsh Mari Lwyd Wassail photo gallery. Most are still traditional in nature although of course, things evolve over time. From time to time you hear people comment 'Its not as good as they used to be', but in reality, Wassailing is alive and healthy, albeit slightly different than it may have been in some cases.
People like to celebrate in their personal own way too - some dress up as animals such as badger or bees (even Santa!), druids will don garb and some groups troupe door to door around the village and finish at the pub (hopefully for a lock-in!) The events are organised by strong characters typical of, and unique to, the cider world. Its one of those British traditions that I believe is worth exploring. If you examine the mixture of what makes up a wassail, you realise it encompasses some iconic aspects of Britishness: polite company, bad weather, Morris men, the ability to laugh at oneself and of course some excellent cider. Throw in a massive fire and some great music - who isn't tempted?
I believe every wassail should include a ceremony and be somewhere that encourages positive, if occasionally wild, celebration. The spirit of the evening should be fun and lively as its an occasion that benefits from a healthy sense of abandon. Mentally, you need to commit to enjoying yourself outside in the worst of the British weather, outside after dark. Physically, it helps to be wrapped up and waterproof so you can celebrate for as long as you can. Never risk drinking cider outside in the West Country without a pair of wellies, particularly at a wassail.
People always like to know about world wassail because its not commonly used outside of the cider world and most people don't know what it means. It is very much a part of our older language, or at least a language that makes up the part of the DNA of modern English anyway. The word comes from an ancient Anglo Saxon toast 'Wæs þu hæl!' pronounced 'Waes-Hael!' meaning 'Be though hale!' (Be in good health!), the modern equivalent to the very polite 'I hope you are well!'
These images are a collection that, between them, sum up the process and to some degree, the experience. They includes some of my favorite wassail moments and I hope they go some way to describing my feelings about the tradition. I wassail to celebrate one of my favourite things in the whole world with like minded people and to reconnect with roots of traditional cidermaking in Britain. And I love it!