WASSAILING is a very ancient tradition which involves drinking to the health of the apple tree, a ritual gulp of hot, mulled punch from a communal 'wassailing bowl', intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year.

The word 'wassail' comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase 'waes hael', which means 'good health', and though Wassailing celebrations are seldom observed today, the ceremony usually takes place on Twelfth Night, 5th January. However, if you missed out on this age-old custom there’s another opportunity to raise a toast to the apple tree on ‘Old Twelvey’, or January 17, as many insist that this is the correct day, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752 set the dates all awry.

On Wassail night in days gone by, villagers would gather and select the biggest and best apple tree in the orchard to toast, pouring cider over its roots and placing slices of cider-soaked bread in the forks of the branches, all to the discordant, noisy accompaniment of gunshots and beating pots and pans. And the louder the racket the better, as the cacophony would not only awaken the ‘Apple Tree Man’ from his winter slumber but also scare away the evil spirits from amongst the branches. Finally, everyone would hail the Apple Tree Man and sing the traditional ‘Wassailing Song’, in the hopes of a good apple harvest the following year, one old version of which ran:

Old Apple-Tree, we Wassail thee,

And hoping thou will bear

For the Lord doth know where we shall be

Till apples come another year;

For us to bear well and bloom well,

So merry let us be,

Let everyman take off his hat

And shout to the old Apple-tree;

Old Apple-Tree, we Wassail thee,

And hoping thou will bear

Hats-full, caps-full

Three Bushel bag-fulls,

And a heap under the stair.


Such ceremonies were considered by some to be a relic of the heathen sacrifice to the goddess Pomona, the ancient Roman deity of fruitful abundance. A wood nymph, Pomona’s name originates from the Latin word for orchard fruit, and it was held that she was the protector of fruit trees, gardens and orchards, often depicted holding a platter of fruit. Ancient mythology aside, however, the custom of Wassailing was especially important in the past when part of a labourer's wages was paid in apple cider. Landlords would Wassail in a show of confidence for a weighty apple crop, a cidery inducement to attract the best workers before the next year's apples appeared.

Of course, everyone knows when you’re in Dorset, you’re in ‘Cider Country’; home-made cider, apple cakes and jams have been produced from Dorset orchards since the 13th century, with Golden Ball, Slack-ma-gurdle, Melcombe Russet and Buttery Door just four examples of Dorset’s wide-ranging variety of native apple trees.

In 1812, Dorset boasted ‘upwards of 10,000 acres of orchard ground in this country’, yet over the succeeding 200 years, Dorset’s cider industry was to suffer a sad decline, risking many local apple varieties being lost forever. Yet from a few forgotten trees in a farm orchard, or growing in fields too steep for other crops to flourish, the last decade has thankfully seen a huge resurgence of interest in traditional local cider apples, and a taste for Dorset cider.

Traditionally soft, sweet and mild in astringency, for those who adhere the age-old methods of cider making, inherently little has changed. After the apples have been crushed or ‘milled’ into a pulp known as ‘pomace’, this is then piled into layers separated by straw or cloth to form ‘cheeses’, the cheeses then slowly compacted by a cider press to extract the juice which is stored in casks or ‘hogsheads’ ready for fermentation.

While the production processes are a labour of love, cider producers admitting that traditional methods of manufacture using ancient hand-driven crushers and old wooden presses are still extremely hard work, across the county new orchards have been planted to answer the demand for one of Dorset’s best-loved commodities, ensuring the renaissance of local heritage apple varieties, and ciders with a distinct Dorset flavour, now widely enjoyed and justly celebrated. What better excuse then to raise a glass, of cider of course! Wassail!!