How to Revive Wassailing

Ancient traditions such as wassailing can be an inspiration rather than a burden for the communities that embrace them.

Wassailing apple trees with hot cider on Twelfth Eve, 1861. Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo.

When I give talks about the medieval festival year, one of the questions people most often ask me is ‘are there any medieval traditions you think we should revive?’ I’m never quite sure how to answer. Reviving old traditions can be a lot of fun, but it’s also a tricky issue; there’s a danger of artificiality, twee archaism which can make once-vibrant customs seem false and meaningless.

Last January I had a memorable experience which seemed a model for how old traditions can successfully be brought to life again. It was just after Twelfth Night, around the return to work after the Christmas holidays – a moment in the year which for most people in Britain now passes unnoticed, but which was for centuries an important occasion for festivity and communal celebration. I went to a nearby village to take part in a revived Twelfth Night custom: wassailing fruit trees to ensure a good crop of fruit in the coming year.

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