Wassailing comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wes hal’, meaning ‘be whole’, or in good health. Crowds went from house to house singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl, in exchange for gifts.
Wassailing also took place in apple orchards, to waken the trees and drive any evil spirits from the orchards. The trees would then be able to attract benevolent insects and birds, ensuring a good harvest next year.
Practices differed in each community but mostly folk gathered around the largest tree in the orchard, sang songs and asked God for a healthy harvest. The smallest boy in the crowd, known as the Tom Tit, was hoisted into the apple tree to attach cider-soaked bread to the branches. Cider was also poured over the roots of the trees. Finally, a loud noise was made to rid the orchard of any evil spirits. At the end of the ceremony a wassail bowl of cider was passed around from person to person.
Animals were also wassailed. Hives were wassailed, to honour the bees. In Hertfordshire the best cow or ox was given a specially baked cake, with a hole in the middle. The wassailers descended on the beast singing:
Fill your cups my merry men all!
For here’s the best ox in the stall,
Oh, he is the best ox, of that there’s no mistake,
And so, let us crown him with the Twelfth cake!
The cake was hooked over one of the ox’s horns and it stayed there until it was tossed off or fell apart.