Sandy’s Garden ... Wassailing the Trees

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

One of the many things for which we must thank the Romans is the way in which we measure the passage of time.

Every school child once learned that the Roman emperor Julius … ‘Caesar’ was not his surname, of course, but was his title, for ‘caesar’ is the Roman word for ‘emperor’ … first came to England in the year 55 BC on a reconnaissance mission prior to returning with his armed forces in 54 BC. Despite determined resistance by some of the tribes which then lived in what we call the United Kingdom, the organisation, training and sheer strength of the Roman legions saw them gradually subdue all of what we call England and southern Scotland. North of Perthshire, Scotland seemed to offer little of interest to the Romans, who were content to defend all the territory they held by mean of a line of wooden and turf forts, watch towers and fortlets that ran along the Gask Ridge through Perthshire.

However, as the more northerly tribes of Europe became more organised and better able to defeat the once-invincible legions, Rome recalled some of its military units to fight in continental Europe, leading to the abandonment of the Gask frontier; and the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a massive fortification along what we recognise as the border between Scotland and England to mark the definitive boundary of Roman territory in these islands. His successor, Antoninus Pius, had a rather more ambitious plan for Britain and ordered the construction of a more northerly defensive barrier to include central Scotland in the Roman Empire … the Antonine Wall … which passes through Falkirk, of course. All of this is ancient history nowadays, in more ways than one. Less well known, even when the facts of the Roman conquest of Britain were common knowledge, is the fact that the same Julius Caesar who started the whole thing off was also instrumental in introducing a revised calendar in 46 BC, a calendar which was to become the predominant calendar throughout Europe and, eventually, in European settlements in the Americas and elsewhere, until it was superseded by the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1582. However, Twelfth Night … January 6 in the Gregorian calendar … was January 17 in the Julian calendar and, understandably, some people were reluctant to change their ways to accord with the ‘new’ calendar; and to this very day there are still a few residents of the south-west of England who choose to remember Old Twelfth Night, bringing us into the garden, or the orchard, at last! The ceremony known as Wassailing the Trees on January 17 begins with the oldest tree in the orchard being chanted to, or spoken to, by either the leader of the wassailers or the whole group, who urge the tree to be even more fruitful this year than it was last. They recite rhymes like this one, which has been in use in Devon since 1791: ‘Hats full! Caps full! / Bushel - bushel - sacks full / And my pockets full too! Huzza!’ The assembled company then proceed to beat the tree and its neighbours with sticks while making as much noise as possible, supposedly to awaken the trees and to start the sap flowing up their trunks. The noise also helps to frighten away any evil spirits that may be lurking unseen in the branches; indeed, in very rural areas the wassailers are known to fire loaded shotguns into the branches the better to deal with any evil beings! In Sussex, a small boy used to be hoisted into the branches of one of the trees ... after the gunfire was ended, of course … and given gifts of bread, cheese and cider, presents for the trees rather than for the child. And the ceremony usually ends with slices of toasted bread soaked in cider being lodged in any suitable places in the trees before the wassailers drink any unused cider … and it is not unknown for a large quantity of cider to be surplus to the trees’ needs. Now, who fancies wassailing their trees?