Walthamstow Wassail 2023

“Are you looking for the the wassail? Head up the lane until you find a shed with a light on”.

Greenway Avenue Community Garden, E17.

We all need traditions and celebrations, to bind us to pasts real or imagined, and to remind of us the cyclical nature of time.

The wassail is a folk tradition based on the important twin procedures of blessing fruit trees in the depths of winter to guarantee a good harvest, and going door to door singing at people in the hope they give you booze.

The latter has largely been supplanted in the modern era by carol singing.

I first attended the Walthamstow wassail in 2014, writing about it for the Guardian. [1]

Urban wassails have grown in popularity over the last decade, thriving despite the necessity of Zoom-singing during the pandemic era.

This was a younger, queerer crowd than before. Soon after my arrival, the concept of “male” and “female” singing parts was gently challenged, and updated into “high” and “low” parts by wassail host, arranger and organiser Lucy Gibson. [2]

It was a nice real-world reminder that away from the white heat of the internet, accommodating requests for inclusivity isn’t hard if you’re a respectful human about it.

Fancy a songbook? Head over to the Walthamstow Wassail website.

One regular feature of this wassail is learning about other winter folk traditions from other countries. This year, understandably enough, we learned about Ukraine. And, specifically, a goat.

“The goat represents the year”, explains Lucy. “As with this whole wassailing thing, it’s done at this time of year because the ground, the plants, look dead.

“They look like they’re not doing to do anything and you want to encourage them to do stuff.”

And so we perform the Koza – a traditional Ukrainian folk play whereby a goat dies and comes back to life, in order to secure an abundant harvest.

A goat, Sir Kier Starmer, and associates.

But because this is north east London, our ritual features Harry Kane missing a penalty and some gentle dissing of Kier Starmer.

We also learned and sang a beautiful Ukrainian carol, a recording of which you can listen to below.

Departing our shed, and with the rain miraculously clearing, it was time for the ritual apple tree blessing, with toast in the branches, cider in the roots, and a blast of the Apple Tree Wassail.

From left to right: goat, human, cider, toast, apple tree, human.

This important duty done, we walked the streets of E17 singing at passers by, buses, and the occasional speeding Audi.

This year the song learning was conducted in the morning online, when I was busy looking at paintings by Lucien Freud.

Fortunately most were old favourites. I bought a song book and joined in outside the Nag’s Head pub, moving from singer to singer until I found one singing the part I was familiar with.

Next was my favourite bit of the tradition: a visit to the hives of Bee-17, accessed via someone’s house and a gap between two trees.

Here some extremely kind people provide warm drinks, a roaring fire, and bees for us to sing at.

The event ends with a performance at the Walthamstow Folk Club, but my velvet jacket was soggy and Brighton was far away.

And so: it was time to go. I bequeathed the folk staff I had inadvertently stolen (sorry Lucy!) to excellent Wassail associate Nat, and slipped away; with ears full of old songs and a soul reassured in the darkest hour that things will come back to life for another year.

[1] Thank you to my friend Anna, who introduced me to this world in the first place. Take the road south soon, old pal x

[2] Massive thanks and appreciation go to Lucy, her family, and all in the Walthamstow community who make this happen every January.

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