The start of 2023 means that in orchards across Cornwall and beyond, cider orchards are the congregation point for the ancient tradition of Wassailing.
The Wassail, which often happens on or just after the twelfth night after Christmas, sees Wassailers pour cider onto the roots of the apple trees which will bring this year’s harvest while singing songs in the hope that the year ahead will bring a good harvest.
However, in one Cornish town, the Wassail has always been a bit different. There are no cider orchards, indeed, there might not be much in the way of apples. Instead, in a tradition which has run continually since 1624, this wassail sees the Wassailers go door-to-door to bring songs and merriment to properties on the route all in the aim of bringing a good year ahead.
The Bodmin Wassail, which occurs every year on the twelfth night, is believed to be the only one of its kind remaining, after a previous door-to-door Wassail in Malpas by two brothers ceased after one of the duo passed away. It’s an invitation only Wassail, and in addition to bringing good wishes for the year ahead, raises money for causes in the town.
Approximately 20 properties are visited on the route from midday to midnight, ranging from pubs to elderly residential homes in addition to people’s houses and starts with a visit to the town’s Mayor at the Shire House Suite.
Paul Scoble, one of the town’s Wassailers, described the tradition’s historic roots.
He said: “The visiting wassail in Bodmin can trace its roots definitely back to 1624, although we know it stretches back before then. We know this because in 1624, the then-town clerk, a Nicholas Sprey, decreed a sum of money for the continuation of the wassail. We believe that at the time, he did this because the mayor of the day owned several properties and wanted to bring Christmas cheer to the residents of his town. It’s continued uninterrupted since then, including during the war and the coronavirus restrictions within the rules set out at the time in order to keep the tradition unbroken. This year is our 399th continuous Wassail in the town.
“We always start with the Mayor at the Shire House Suite at midday, a public space where people can join us before following a pre-worked out route that covers regulars who invite us in each year and new people, pubs and residential homes but it covers approximately twenty properties in the town.”
Given that the Bodmin Wassail is unusual in its approach and rationale compared to other events, it’s perhaps unsurprising that what happens during the event is different, too. Paul described what happens during the wassail.
He continued: “While we’re inside the property, what we do depends on the host. The only thing that’s the same is the fact we enter and exit with a song. At some places we visit, there might be a party going on, at other places we might be invited to have a bowl of soup or something to eat.
“During the visit we might also socialise and chat, have a drink, or we might sing songs. Nothing is out of bounds ranging from carols to more modern songs.”
The Bodmin Wassail also plays its part in raising money for the community, with a different Bodmin based good cause being the recipient of money raised during the wassail. This year’s beneficiary was the “Our Gate” initiative operated by Reverend Elaine Munday, one of the town’s vicars, which provides a confidential, non-judgement source of food for those who need it.
Even the story of how the Wassail came to be has its own unique tale.
Paul said: “Originally, it is believed that the Wassails of the past raised money for its own existence, as in helping to continue the wassail tradition for the future, but these days its for a good cause. Public pressure from those who invited us in and wanted to give us something for our visit saw us decide to give the money to charity. We try and keep the money in the town so every year we donate anything we raise to a good cause.”
While many Wassails are a public event nowadays, the unique nature of the Bodmin Wassail means that this particular event is one which is invitation-only, meaning you must be nominated and selected by the other wassailers.
Paul added: “The reason it is invitation only is because we are invited into people’s houses. If you had twenty or more people in someone’s house it would be too much for some so it helps to keep numbers to a respectable amount. We don’t own the event, it’s certainly true anyone could set up their own wassail but that’s the reason ours is invite-only.
“What happens is a wassailer will carry on until they cannot anymore and we need a replacement. Someone might be suggested then we approach them to see if they want to join us. Any new wassailer is known in their first year as a coat boy.
“Traditionally, a coat boy would be a new recruit who would join us un-dressed up and they would wait outside a property while holding the coats of the wassailers while they went inside. These days, the coat boy comes in with us and doesn’t hold the coats but doesn’t dress up. In a way, that tradition is kept because if we take on the new recruit, he or she will come with us, see if they enjoy it and then the wassailers have a chat amongst themselves to see if the new individual fits in with us. It’s a mutual arrangement which cancels out any bad feeling.”
Next year will see the historic Bodmin Wassail celebrate it’s 400th consecutive year of taking place. With a new coat boy inducted this year, there’s no sign of the ancient tradition slowing down anytime soon. It’s an event which has continued through war, pandemics and everything in between and stands every chance of being here in the centuries to come.