Wassail! Reinventing ‘tradition’ in contemporary wassailing customs in southern England

Wigley, Edward (2019). Wassail! Reinventing ‘tradition’ in contemporary wassailing customs in southern England. cultural geographies, 26(3) pp. 379–393.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474019832350

Abstract

On a bleak winter’s Saturday evening, I find myself along with many others in the middle of a suburban park located in a small town in North Somerset, singing, shouting and toasting to an apple tree, otherwise known as ‘wassailing’. The practice of wassailing the orchards has become increasingly popular since the early 2000s with the custom being performed in community orchards, city farms and public gardens across the United Kingdom and beyond every January. Yet, this tradition which emerges in rural villages to protect the valuable crop of the fruit-producing regions is now practised in built-up areas, often with little or no history of fruit farming. Through in-depth interviews with organisers of local wassails, this research explores how the historic customs of orchard wassailing have been translated into contemporary set of practices that responds to the needs of the organisers and the interests and attitudes of the participating audiences. Events in this research critically engaged with and drew upon historic traditions of wassailing, modifying certain elements due to contemporary regulations or attitudes towards gender and identity. I argue that despite this critical reflection, the notion of ‘tradition’ was mobilised to authenticate and reassert the local identity of the event, even in cases where the wassail was recently ‘reinvented’. The article contributes to the theoretical discussion of ‘tradition’ as a symbolically static reassertion of identity while simultaneously fluid and responsive to the social values of the time. Empirically, the article responds to a lack of coverage in academic literature of this custom, contributing an account of how the wassailing ‘tradition’ is reinvented for a contemporary audience.

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