So we’re here again: after the madness and euphoria of the Christmas season, we’re back to the time of the year publicans hate most – (Dry) January.
The slump is inevitable – we’re all skint. You can’t enjoy the hedonism of Christmas without a comedown afterwards. There’s a natural cycle of restraint following excess.
This may be becoming more extreme for pubs, with the growth of initiatives such as Dry January, but I’ve written before for The Morning Advertiser about how, when we’re not drinking, many of us would still love to come to the pub if only they had something for us. There’s never been a better time to explore non-alcoholic beers – and I’ll write about this again in future.
To your good health
But what if I told you that you could have one of the best nights of the entire year, right in the middle of January, when things are at their bleakest and most depressing?
The custom of Wassail goes back…well, no one is entirely sure. Certainly, elements of it are ancient, but these things are reinvented and repackaged down the years.
If you associate the word ‘Wassail’ with Christmas you’re not quite wrong. ‘Wassail cups’ were a common part of the Victorian Christmas, and were used to seasonally toast one another.
The word derives from the old English ‘Was heil!’ (good health) and was responded to with ‘Drink heil!’ You should try it. It’s fun.
But Wassail was most strongly associated with the Twelfth Night of Christmas, which, under the old Gregorian calendar, fell on what is now 17 January (no, I can’t quite work it out either.) Today, that night, or the closest Saturday to it, sees one of the best parties of the year, and it’s all about cider.
Sing it loud
Mid-January is when the nights are just starting to get noticeably shorter, and thoughts turn to the renewal of spring. In orchards, people gather around an ancient apple tree.
Depending on how mystical or Christian your Wassail ceremony is, you either drive out the evil spirits of winter from the tree and attract the benign spirits of spring, or you simply wake the tree from its winter slumber.
To do this, make as much noise as possible – think banging pots and pans and screaming (most popular in ceremonies with children) or even firing blank shotgun cartridges into the branches. Then, you sing the Wassail song:
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow.
Hats full. Caps full.
And my pockets full too. Huzza!
After this, you place cider-soaked toast in the branches of the tree to attract good spirits or attract birds and help bring it back to life.
Growing in popularity
Afterwards, everyone goes to the nearest pub (or barn) and drinks copiously, usually accompanied by lots of singing and dancing.
The remarkable thing about Wassail is that, 20 years ago, Morris men would probably have been the only people who turned up. Now, entire communities celebrate this return to life.
While Wassail is all about orchards, with a bit of creativity you don’t actually need an apple tree to celebrate it. Many rural pubs have a ceremony involving a bonfire or flaming torches in the pub car park or garden before retiring inside for cider and hog roast.
It’s easy to research the Wassail ceremony online if it’s unfamiliar, and if you have a local Morris group, they’ll probably be happy to run the event for you. If they’re busy, you get the excuse to dress up as a druid and do it yourself.
Wassail is growing in popularity because it links us back with time, tradition and terroir.
It gives us a really good excuse for a party. And at the bleakest time of the year, it really cheers us up. I suspect that this January in particular, we’re really going to need that.