Croydon comes a-wassailing

By - Wednesday 3rd February, 2016

The ancient tradition of wassailing has returned to Croydon. Liz Sheppard-Jones reports

The procession to the apple tree.
Photo by Ally McKinlay, used with permission.

‘Here we come a-wassailing/Among the leaves so green’ goes the song. And so we did, on the afternoon of Saturday 30th January, in Addiscombe Railway Park.

Wassailing is an old English tradition and like a lot of these involves drinking: cold north European winds blow through long dark winters and in such dispiriting circumstances, we learned how to party. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Old English ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘to be well,’ and variants of the wassailing tradition have been traced back to Neolithic times: it’s about passing on good wishes for the year ahead by handing round an ale-based drink seasoned with spices and honey. The drink is presented in a huge bowl, often silver or pewter: a wassail bowl.

A second aspect of wassailing concerns fruit trees: blessing them, wakening them from their wintry sleep and encouraging a good harvest to come.

So when the Friends of Addiscombe Railway Park, part of Croydon’s burgeoning Friends of Parks group movement, decided to plant a community orchard, wassailing to bring success to the venture seemed a joyful and traditional thing to do. And so it turned out to be.

Old magic: sweet, serious, haunting and wild

Turn-out was the first thing I noticed: the event drew a good crowd, warmly wrapped on a chilly afternoon and (the more sensible amongst us at least) Wellington-booted against a good deal of mud. Patricia Hay-Justice, Croydon’s mayor and as an Addiscombe councillor also with special local enthusiasm, welcomed us warmly, then two energetic Friends explained what we’d be doing and introduced Croydon Community Choir, led by the gifted and gracious Katie Rose, who opened proceedings with a wassailing song: Wassail The Silver Apple. It was this song which for me gave the afternoon its flavour: sweet, serious, haunting and wild.

A king and queen of the wassail were chosen (by offering round cupcakes, two of which had stickers on) and crowned with ivy, believed in pagan times to be a female plant and traditionally used to celebrate the winter solstice, ward off evil spirits and celebrate new growth.We processed to the park’s apple tree behind the king and queen, invited to make as much noise as possible whilst doing so (at 3:45 pm on a Saturday afternoon: I couldn’t help but wonder what Addiscombe’s non-wassailers were saying to each other at this point) with tambourines, shakers, recorders, drums and voices to rouse the trees from their winter sleep. There we passed around the wassail bowl, every person giving its traditional greeting: “Wassail! Drink ale!” and the king and queen poured cider on the ground at the tree’s roots.

We feel the old power working, renewing common life

Photo author’s own.

This was old magic for the Cronx: pagan power. Ted Hughes would have loved it. Long before we imagined that life comes from a single guy in the sky, we knew it comes from the earth, and from men and women together: fertility, fecundity, warmth, food. Old magic celebrates our roots and blesses us, our harvests, our babies, willing us to survive the winter when survival is not certain. And we want to be part of the earth: that’s why the community of Croydon responded as it did to Ally McKinlay’s wonderful saffron farm initiative last autumn. We felt the old power working, renewing common life and faith in the future. As another wassail song reminds us: ‘The Lord does know where we shall be/To be merry another year’.

Let’s hope we’ll be back in Addiscombe community orchard, singing and binding Croydon together. This was a beautiful, ceremonial day. Blessings to the new orchard, and many thanks to everyone who organised it all so well.

‘Fire at the spirit of winter,
Fire at the spirit of night,
Fire at the spirit of darkness,
Wassail the bringer of light.’*

*from ‘Wassail The Silver Apple’.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • drews

    Great report on the first of many wassails to come, an event that brought the local community together to appreciate the orchard in the railway park, thanks! Ewald, secretary of the friends of addiscombe railway park (