The Butcher's Arms
Wassailing at the Butcher's Arms 1999

The Butcher's Arms is a pub in Carhampton, Somerset which has kept the tradition of Apple Tree Wassailing alive since time immemorial. The land behind the pub was once filled with apple trees, but in the 1970's the orchard was sold and converted into a residential area. Only a few apple trees remain on Butcher's Arms property, but the locals continue to honour them just as their Somerset ancestors have done for centuries.

My husband Stormerne and I arrived at the Butcher's Arms around 6:45 on Sunday the 17th of January. Although the pub didn't officially open until 7:00, it was already packed full of people. Our impression was that most of the crowd consisted of locals and that most of them had been wassailing for years. When we stepped up to the bar and asked what kind of cider they had on tap, we were served with bitter irony. The answer was "Blackthorn"-- a dry, tasteless, over-processed, distinctly non-appley, but nevertheless popular (due to the appeal of their advertising campaigns aimed at clueless people who have never tasted real cider) commercial concoction. The publican explained to us that he had stocked some good Somerset cider over the summer, but few people requested it at the bar. In fact, he would be using the remains of it in the wassailing ceremony tonight.

We ordered a couple of bottles of Redrock cider (not as bad as Blackthorn, but certainly not as good as any local brew fresh from the barrel would have been). We found seats at the end of a large table and were soon joined by some very enthusiastic wassailers who made a point of returning for the ceremony every year. At around 7:30, people started wandering out behind the pub to witness the lighting of the bonfire . The pub had already arranged a large number of wooden construction pallets into a flamable mass. And they soon blazed into life, spreading its warmth through the January night. Meanwhile, everyone involved in the Wassailing ritual was being hounded by the media and asked to pose for photo shoots. (Later an aquaintance told my husband and I that he had seen us on TV.) Must have been a slow news day!

Finally, a bucket full of mulled cider and some toast were brought out. Four wassailing veterans lined up near the apple trees brandishing their traditional cider crock and sang the Carhampton Wassailing Song:

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
For to bear well, and to bear well
So merry let us be.
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout to the old apple tree!
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stairs
Hip! Hip! Horray!

The last three lines were repeated and the whole crowd joined in the chant. Then toast was dipped into the cider bucket and placed in the branches of the apple trees to attract the "good spirits" --which come in the form of robins each year to eat it. The singers launched into a series of wonderful folk songs about cider. I was amazed that so many cider songs existed, until my husband pointed out that some of them had been adapted from tradional songs with lyrics changed a bit to give them a cider theme. While the singing continued, a publican dipped plastic cups in the barrel of warm and spicy mulled cider and passed them out to eagar apple tree worshippers. Three gunners put the finishing touch on the ceremony by shooting into the sky to scare off evil spirits.

folkband When the singing was over and cups were empty, people crowded back inside the Butcher's Arms to listen to a talented local folkband. We couldn't find any empty seats, so we sat on the floor near the hearth. While we were enjoying the music, we chatted with an alewife who told us that she and her husband had been involved in the annual wassailing ritual for more than 20 years and have always looked forward to it.

a comfortable spot in the pub Why so much enthusiasm over such a simple ceremony? And why has wassailing survived at all now that people rely on modern farming methods to ensure a good apple crop each year? While I accept that any English festival involving free alcohol is bound to draw a crowd, I think a deeper desire motivates people to join in the wassailing each year. I subscribe to the theory that people in Northern Europe have a basic psychological need to focus on the return of the summer sun during the short days in the depth of winter. (Hence the popularity of fire festivals in the dark half of the year.) This need may have been greater in the days before electric lights and central heating, but it still persists. Apple tree wassailing is the first step in the beginning of a new cycle of growth. Though the ritual is held several weeks before the trees will begun to bud, it focuses on the fruit that they will bear, and thus assures the participants that summer is not too far off.

Which begs the question of who is really blessed by the wassailing ceremony... is it the trees, or the wassailers, or both?

Back to the Apple Tree Wassailing Page