Christmas feature

Wassail away your Christmas

- Last updated on GMT

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Forget the family 'bored' games this Christmas. It's time to get
down to the local orchard with a slice of toast, a loaded gun and a
big bowl of steaming Wassail for some real festive tradition.

Deep in rural Somerset, southern England, the little town of Carhampton is preparing to mark one of the oldest yet least remembered traditions of the Christmas period. People have been wassailing around the apple trees there for hundreds of years.

At the centre of the whole deal is hot wassail, a spiced, festive drink that straddles modern day punch, cider and mulled wine. The drink gets its name from the old English expression 'waes hal', meaning 'to your health', and is traditionally drunk at winter festivals.

Texts from the 14th Century show that the leader of a party would shout 'wassail' just as we say 'cheers' today. "The drinking of the wassail bowl"​ even got a nod in The Gentleman's Magazine​ in 1784.

"There was nothing the Northern nations so much delighted in as carousing ale,"​ it said. Some things don't change it seems.

Wassail recipes vary from region to region but most contain apples, beer or cider, sugar, dry sherry and spices including cinnamon and ginger.

Across the lot, apples are a prominent theme. That's because one wassail festival, usually performed between Christmas and Twelfth Night, was designed to ensure the local apple trees would serve up a good harvest in the coming year.

The first thing to do at a wassail, after finding an orchard, is to pour some hot wassail around the roots of the trees. Next, place toasted bread in the branches.

That's when the gun comes in. Now, granted, guns and alcohol together might seem like a one-way ticket to hospital, but it's all part of the tradition. The gun has to be fired through the leaves of the tree, so just make sure you're not on the wrong side.

Eddie Upton, folk traditions expert and director of Folk Southwest, told me he's pretty sure they use blanks at Carhampton.

After the gun is fired, revellers must bless the tree by saying: "Old apple tree, we wassail thee and hope thy will bear hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls and a little heap under stairs."​ Cue much wassail drinking and noise-making.

Today, there are only a few such festivals that survive; most have been extinguished by the rigours of modern life.

Blessing the apple trees matters a little less now that Tesco can fly us apples from most corners of the earth.

Eddie Upton, however, believes a big revival in apple tree wassailing is now underway. He also takes part in the other form of wassailing - the visiting wassail - in the small town of Drayton, Somerset.

The visiting wassail is like carol singing with a twist. Groups of revellers meander through town drinking from a big bowl of wassail and singing songs outside houses for money.

There is a heap of songs, including 'Here We Come A-Wassailing', 'Jolly Wassail' and 'Bring Us a Barrel'. To give you a few words from one: "Wassail, wassail, all over the town, our bowl it is white and our ale it is brown, our bowl it is made of the white maple tree, with the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee."

Back in the 17th Century, some hardcore wassailers would get their bowl topped up with more alcohol at each house they visited, with often messy results.

These days, in the age of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, things have become a little calmer.

"We go round to different houses and sing by appointment now,"​ said Upton. "They let us in, we have a chat and they've usually got something to give us."

The Drayton wassailers are, nonetheless, trying to bring back the traditional walk through town this year, complete with authentic hand-me-down top hat and tails for their outings.

But, you don't have to journey the streets, or even find an apple tree, to justify a few swigs of wassail.

Essentially, wassail is one of England's oldest winter party drinks and can be enjoyed just as much in the peace of your own home.

So why not give it a go this Christmas? At the very least, it will help those family games slip by a little more easily.

Wassail to you all.

Chris Mercer is the editor of www.BeverageDaily.com​.

Click here​ for a traditional wassail recipe.

If you want to go all the way, you can even make your own wassail bowl. Check out the handy tips on craftsman Stuart King's website​.

The Carhampton wassail will take place on 17 January, which is Twelfth Night in the old English calendar. Another Wassail tree festival will be held at Ryton Organic Gardens in Warwickshire on Sunday 22 January. Families are welcome.

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