22/11/2013 06:21 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

Where Has All the Wassailing Gone?


Not enough wassailing is done in this day and age, in my opinion. It's a lost talent, overdue a comeback, and this year I intend to get right back into it. There's no time to lose, either - wassailing is best enjoyed during the festive season, and come late January, a decent wassail is a hard thing to come by.

For those of you wondering what wassailing is, but enticed by the mystery of the word, there are essentially two main forms. The second is strictly post-Christmas, but you can be a little more relaxed about the first, so that's where we'll start.

Pre-Christmas wassailing can be seen as a form of rowdy carol singing. In centuries past, a good wassail required peasants and/or forced entry. I doubt the Huffington Post would be too pleased if I insisted on either, so we'll have to make do with a somewhat boisterous sing-along. The word itself comes from the Middle English, "waes hael", meaning "be thou hale", which in turn means "be in good health", so boisterousness is clearly relevant. If you're stuck for a song with which to demonstrate your good health, 'The Wassailing Song' is thought to have hit the top of the local Christmas charts in Gloucestershire circa 1790, where they've been singing Christmas songs for almost as long as Cliff Richard has.

The phrase, "waes hael" dates the activity back to pre-Norman times, so if you do decide to get outside and try a quick wassail, you'll be following a time-honoured tradition. At its most friendly, it seems to have involved a merry but financially strapped band of well-wishers turning up outside rich peoples' doors and singing heartily for their supper. In its less sociable form, the singers would cross the threshold and make their gluttony known. "Figgy pudding" was a common craving, and the trespassing mob would further insist that, "we won't go until we've got some, so bring some right here." You may have heard about it.

The second form of wassailing, and one that appeals to the latent pagan in me, is the kind that took place beneath the green leaves on Twelfth Night. In another ode to wassailing (there are many), the singers call for "wassailing among the leaves so green". It sounds idyllic, but that's because they fail to mention the alcohol, the girls in trees, the soggy toast, the pots, the pans or the freakout.

In order to perform this form of wassail, you will need some cider, a wassailing bowl, a Wassailing Queen, some toast, an incantation, half of your kitchen and a pre-Christian rave. Begin by visiting your local orchard and wetting the roots of the trees with the cider (poured from the wassailing bowl). Next, hoist your queen into the branches of the tree and get her to feed the spirits with the toast. Be sure to marinade the toast in the cider before you begin. The tree spirits know their apples.

As far as incantations go, there are a number available for free online, but you'll need one that encourages the trees to grow strong and tall and to produce a decent yield. Once you've finished intoning, get the party started. Pots and pans are all you need to provide a decent beat, but don't get so lost in the music that you forget what you're there to do. There are likely to be other orchards in the area, and there's only one Twelfth Night. A quick freakout in each is all you need to get the job done.

If you find all of this too much, the good news is that there are still pockets of the West Country that wassail annually, so you needn't lead the chaos if you don't have the confidence. And let's face it; you wouldn't want your first wassail to sour the experience, would you? Not when it's about to make such a massive comeback.