Thought for the Week – Wassail!

Deborah Colvin, St James’s Church Warden and member of the Eco Church team, explains the meaning of Wassail.

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You are warmly invited to a Wassail in the Southwood Garden straight after the 11.00am service on Sunday 15th January.

Wassailing is Anglo-Saxon in origin and gets its name from ‘waes hael’ meaning ‘be well’, a toast proposed by the local Lord to the assembled crowds. Said crowds would then dutifully shout back ‘drink hael’ (drink well)!

The correct date for wassail celebrations is a matter of debate. 12th Night (5th Jan) is a strong contender these days, but some traditionalists still prefer ‘Old Twelvey’ (17th Jan) which was the ‘true’ 12th Night until introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 messed up the counting of days.

The wassail itself is a drink fit to stave off the winter chill, consisting of warm ale or cider with spices (ginger, nutmeg), honey and sometimes an egg or even cake or toast, served in a huge wassail bowl and passed from person to person.

According to Historic UK, ‘There are two distinct variations of wassailing. One involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. The other form of wassailing is generally practiced in the countryside, particularly in fruit growing regions, where it is the trees that are blessed.’* House wassailing continued into the Middle Ages and provided an opportunity for feudal lords to demonstrate goodwill to the wassailers in the form of money and food. This evolved into carolling (think ‘we all want some figgy pudding, so bring it right here!’ to see the wassailing roots of traditional carols). Tree wassailing involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees, in the hope of a bountiful harvest later in the year, and is still practised across the country, particularly in cider producing areas. Historic UK again: ‘The celebrations….generally involve a noisy procession from one orchard to the next. In each orchard the wassailers gather round the biggest and best tree…. and place a piece of wassail soaked toast into its branches, accompanied by singing.’ Banging of pots and pans, shouting and firing of shotguns are also often the order of the day, to wake things up.

In the absence of a cider orchard in Piccadilly, we will celebrate with wassail, singing and story by the mulberry tree just outside the west doors of the church. Every year this small and lovely tree produces a bountiful harvest in August which often goes unnoticed by the Sunday congregation. In January it serves to focus our attention – and gratitude – on our intimate and immediate relationship with the land and the food it provides, at the start of the agricultural year.

Our mulberry tree has failed to drop all of its leaves this year. Ordinarily, decreasing temperatures in Autumn trigger deciduous trees to develop an abscission zone at the base of their leaves – effectively a disc of scar tissue that cuts the leaf off from the rest of the tree and causes it to fall. If temperatures stay warm well into winter as they did this year (notwithstanding the big freeze in mid-December) the tree never makes these abscission cells, so the leaves stay on the tree. This process is just one of many that are being disrupted by climate change. Some will have serious impacts on our ability to feed a growing global population.

There is a lot said about the need for better planetary stewardship in the face of environmental crisis. At St James’s we recognize that a major barrier to better stewardship is our limited human-centric understanding of our ecological  place in the earthly system and frequent failure to fully realize our absolute dependence on the life processes going on all around us. Or to put it another way: the more we know our patch (and ourselves as part of it), the more we are able to value it.

The Earth Justice team aims to offer opportunities to understand and honour our earthly place, prayerfully and reverently. Our monthly eco-contemplative liturgies (outside in the garden whatever the weather) continue this year at 9.45 every 4th Sunday of the month. And later in the year we will celebrate rogation-tide by beating the bounds of the parish, then the season of creation and harvest.

Please join us! And in the meantime, waes hael in 2023!


Wassail in 2020