APPLES have long been at the core of one of Herefordshire’s most ancient and unusual rituals – wassailing.

Apple wassailing has long been an important event in the January calendar because it was believed to help ensure a good harvest in the coming year.

In apple growing regions in the UK, where cider was once a form of currency, the annual custom of waking the trees and scaring away evil spirits is a tradition which is steeped in history and dates back hundreds of years.

Given the still-strong market for cider in the UK, farmers have more reason than ever to hope for a good apple harvest this year.

That increased interest in cider has also led to an increase in the number of wassails which are cropping up around the country.

Spokesman for the National Association of Cider Makers, Simon Russell, said: “Cider sales over the past few years has helped put this ancient celebration firmly back on the rural calendar.

“This year there are more wassails taking place across the country than in living memory and we are delighted to see the revival of this tradition.”

The term wassailing comes from the Old English expression ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘be in good health’.

Legend suggests that the origins of wassailing stem from the fifth century love affair between Rowena, daughter of Saxon leader Hengist, and British king Vortigern. It is said that at a banquet Rowena presented Vortigern with a goblet of wine with the words ‘waes hael’. He accepted the drink with the words ‘drink hael’ and the custom of wassailing began.

This is believed to be the first formal toast in the Western world ever recorded and the custom of toasting, now observed everywhere from weddings to dinner parties, also takes its name from the bread used in the wassailing ceremony. Pieces of crisp bread were floated in the wassailing drink and this is said to have led to our use of the term ‘giving a toast’.