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What is Wassailing? An excuse for hot cider, dancing and fun!

Published: February 20, 2018
Morris dancers in costume at wassailing festival in Caledon, Ontario.
Costumed Morris dancers at a wassailing festival in Caledon, Ontario.

What is wassailing? I've always wondered about this ancient English tradition, and I thought that since I live in North America, I would never be able to find out first hand.

Well, I got lucky! There are some dedicated wassailers here in Ontario and each winter, while our apple trees are still dormant, these wassailers go from orchard to orchard spreading good luck and good cheer.

I caught up with the fantastic Orange Peel Morris Dancers at the wassailing festival at Spirit Tree Estate Cidery in Caledon, Ontario and you can watch a video of the event below.

Watch this video to eet the Orange Peel Morris Dancers and watch them in action at the wassailing festival at Spirit Tree Estate Nursery.

Families came to enjoy the dancing, singing, and costumes. The cidery's staff lit a huge bonfire where visitors could keep warm, sip their hot apple cider, toast marshmallows, and listen to stories told by Co-Squire Mark W. of the Orange Peel Morris Dancers.

After some storytelling and entertainment, a band of dancers, dressed in colourful costumes, marched in. And all the visitors followed them and we danced through the orchard in a wassailing parade.

Origin of Wassailing

During the event we learned that the age-old wassailing traditions aren't just fun and games. The goal of this pagan tradition is to ensure a good harvest in the year to come by enticing good spirits to come to the orchard (they like the song and dance part), and to frighten away bad spirits that might wreak havoc and ruin this year's crop!

One tradition has wassailers soaking stale toast in apple cider and gently hanging the toast on the spurs of the dormant apple trees, as a way of attracting the friendly spirits. And to scare away the baddies, we were all encouraged to make lots of noise with noisemakers because ancient lore suggests that bad energies prefer a peaceful, quiet environment!

Wassailing as Part of a Cider Festival

Wassailing events are a wonderful way to bring the community out in the dead of winter with a bonfire, children's activities, dancing and singing.

During the festival, visitors helped themselves to hot cider produced by Spirit Tree Estate Cidery and hard ciders were available for purchase inside the CIdery's store and restaurant.

This site is wonderful to visit at any time of year. The cidery's main building is a straw bale construction powered by geothermal energy. The owners, Thomas Wilson and Nicole Judge, prioritize the environment when growing their apple trees. They use cover crops and wildflowers between the rows of apple trees to attract beneficial insects and to prevent soil erosion. They practice integrated pest management which allows them to minimize the use of chemical sprays.

But what I loved most about this event is that it brings out the community in the dead of winter and encourages us to laugh, play and enjoy nature together. There were lots of activities for kids (including grown up kids like me), such as:

  • Free drinks of hot apple cider - fun for the whole family!
  • Face painting
  • Making noisemakers (we did this by stapling two paper plates together with a filling of bird seed, then decorated the plates)
  • And of course, singing the wassailing song!

Wassailing Lyrics at the Heart of the Festival

Sheet music for the wassailing song.

Wassailing traditions may differ from place to place. But they all pretty much will have one thing in common: you'll hear the much-beloved wassailing song. If you've never heard it before, here are the lyrics:

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
'Til apples come another year

For to bear well and to bloom well
So merry let us be
Let every man take off his hat
And shout to the old apple tree

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three bushel bag fulls
And a little heap under the stairs

Orchard Wassailing Builds Community

As a community orchardist, I think organizing an event like this is a fantastic idea. I'm not sure that wassailing alone that ensure a healthy and productive crop. In my award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards, I write about other ways to keep your trees healthy and productive. But if a bit of a song, a dance and a fun celebration helps bring good fortune to my orchard too, I'm excited to try it!

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Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. She is the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at www.orchardpeople.com and the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast.  She is also an ISA Certified Arborist..

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