Wassailing isn’t new, and it’s not just a Sussex tradition although it’s most practiced in counties where fruit trees are common (like Sussex and Kent). But it does seem to be enjoying a bit of a resurgence and certainly makes for a most interesting and unusual event.
Wassailing has its origins in Pagan culture which abounded in our part of the world before Christianity. Wassail was a type of toast that means “Good health” to which other revellers would reply “Be well” or “Drink hael” (drink well). The drink involved was warm, mulled ale, wine or cider.
Wassailing normally takes place on the Twelfth Night (5th of January) or the 17th of January, the correct date before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. The aim is to bless the fruit trees and ward off any bad spirits to ensure a bountiful harvest in the year ahead.
Although practices vary, wassailing usually involves a procession led by a King and Queen with much accompanying noise, such as shouting, singing, banging of pans, ringing of bells, etc. to frighten off bad spirits and awaken the trees for the beginning of the new year. Then wassail soaked toast is hung on the branches of the trees and various chants are shouted.
Wassailing at Michelham Priory
The folk at Michelham Priory know a thing or two about wassailing and as if the grounds of this ancient priory aren’t charismatic enough, on arrival at their wassailing event you’re greeted by the Brighton Folk Choir. This is followed by what can only be described as the phenomenal Pentacle Drummers. If you haven’t come across them before, make your way to a performance. They are the premiere drumming troupe in England and have performed all over the country in their distinctive green and red livery, tatter coats, face paint, and kilts. The impact of their garb and the hypnotic but earth-moving sound of their drums is like nothing I was expecting. It is utterly compelling and everything you want to kick off a Pagan ceremony!
Always a fan of Morris dancers, Morris dancing by torchlight takes things up a level. In the courtyard in front of the early 17th century timber barn, the Blackpowder Morris from Lewes and the Anderida Morris from Pevensey fought it out on the dance floor while the freezing January air added to the ambiance. It felt Pagan and a little mysterious but also wholesome, authentic, and good.
Next, the torch-lit procession led by the King and Queen and a variety of other revellers headed off to the orchards as the rhythmic drumming of the Pentacle Drummers added layer upon layer to the sense of ceremony and tradition. Gathering in the small orchard in front of the priory, our wassailer led the celebrations with the traditional call to the evil spirits and gods, as we returned the call of Drink hael and hung our toast on the tree.
This was my first wassailing. It will not be my last. It’s completely compelling, and judging by the popularity of the event, it feels like these traditions are becoming popular once more. I can understand. It feels like you’re making a connection with mother nature and the seasons. And in the dark and cold of January, it feels good to be acknowledging the fact that the seasons are on the move once more. And if nothing else, what a fabulous way to spend an evening.
If you like this post about Sussex wassailing, you may also like: