Laughing Betsy and the Village Wassail

Green Woodpecker standing on grass.

‘Have you heard her yet?’ Jimmy’s head, mop of dark curls topping a hopeful expression, appeared around the door of Wayland’s smithy, just as it had every morning since the start of February.

‘Not yet, lad,’ Wayland replied, just as he had also done every morning, ‘You’ll know when we do.’

Jimmy’s expression fell. ‘But it’s almost March!’

‘Aye. But that’s no matter. Betsy’ll laugh when she’s ready and not before.’

‘But I want to do the wassailing now!’

‘And you can go on wanting. Tradition doesn’t change just because one lad is impatient to be about it. Now off to school with you.’


‘Enough.’ Wayland fixed Jimmy with a stern look. ‘If you’re late you’ll get a demerit and that’ll land you in trouble with your mother and then where will you be? Not at the wassailing when it does happen, that’s for sure.’

‘Mam wouldn’t.’ Jimmy’s eyes belied his words, wide with panic.

‘Maybe not but I wouldn’t care to test her.’ Wayland said earnestly and that was enough to send the boy scampering off back up the lane to the village proper.

Wayland smiled to himself and returned his attention to his forge, pumping the bellows vigorously as he acknowledged, in the privacy of his own head, that he was feeling almost as impatient as Jimmy. He’d had his costume ready since mid January despite them still being knee deep in snow at the time, as had the rest of the villagers who made up the morris team. Plus Amos, Alan, Eleanor and Sarah had all the supplies on hand for the wassail cup and the feasting and he knew the children were desperate to participate in the hullabaloo. 

There was only one thing they were waiting for and there was nothing anyone in the village could do to make that happen. Patience was all they had. At least, he thought to himself as he hammered another horseshoe into shape, his work was an excellent way of getting frustrations out of his system.

By the time his muscles were aching in the pleasant way that told him he’d been working at just the right intensity the clock showed it was almost past lunchtime. As his assistant was having a day off he banked the fire in the forge and grabbed his cap and woollen coat (there was still snow on the verges), intending to treat himself to one of Alan’s excellent ploughman’s at The Green Man.

He reached the pub without incident but had barely managed to greet Amos, who was serving when Wayland entered, before both of them were surprised by a loud tapping that sounded as if it were coming from the back of snug.

‘What the devil is that?’ Amos asked, ducking out from the bar and following Wayland through the pub. The tapping became almost a drum roll but stopped abruptly as they reached the window at the back of the room. A set of beady black eyes peered at them, the bird’s face and black and white body distorted by the bullseye glass.

‘Good afternoon Mister Magpie, how’s your lady wife?’ both men repeated automatically, with Amos adding, ‘and what can we be doing for you?’

In answer the Magpie gave the glass one more resounding tap then leapt off the windowsill. For a moment there was silence then the tapping resumed, much more muted, on the door leading to the pub garden.

‘I think we’re to let him in,’ Wayland said, reaching for the top bolt.

Amos bent to the bottom bolt then they pulled the door open only to find an empty doorstep. Magpie had already taken flight, swooping silently away over the garden and the field beyond, off towards the trees at the edge of the Wildwood. His wings and tail feathers dipped and fluttered in what to Wayland looked like a rather insolent salute.

‘What was he playing at?’ Amos demanded, beginning to push the door closed only to freeze almost immediately as another sound reached their ears; a high pitched ‘he-he-he-he-he-he’ that vanished as quickly as it had come.

‘Was that-’ 

‘Hush,’ Wayland muttered, holding his own breath as he strained his ears and eyes in the direction of the noise.

‘He-he-he-he-he-he.’ The call came again, followed by a clatter of wings and a flash of red, green and yellow from the edge of the field.

‘He-he-he-he-he-he. He-he-he-he-he-he. He-he-he-he-he-he.’

They grinned at each other, triumphant. The yaffling cry of the green woodpecker, known to all in the Village as a Laughing Betsy, had been undisputedly heard for the first time that year. That call heralded the beginning of the growing season and so the Village Wassail could finally happen.

A flurry of phone calls later and all their pre-planning came into its own with spectacular results. Closed signs were hurriedly hung in all the Village shops as the children raced gleefully back to their homes, a whole hour early, to pull on their warmest clothes and grab the biggest pans and wooden spoons their kitchens could provide.

The nine special iron fire bowls, that had been made by Wayland’s many times great grandfather for the wassailing, were carried into the Village orchard, set carefully in their predetermined spots amongst the trees, filled with logs of apple and oak, then strewn with sprigs of rosemary. Tressel tables were carried down from Village hall, ready for the food that would be brought along with the procession, and a deep bellied cauldron was hung on a tripod near the oldest apple tree at the centre of the orchard. The cauldron was swiftly filled with cider and mulling spices and a fire carefully kindled beneath it. The Witch, dressed in the finery of the Wassail Queen, appeared – as she always did – just as the first flames illuminated the cauldron bottom, to tend the fire and await the formal arrival of the Wassail King and his “court” to the orchard.

Back at The Green Man the villagers were gathering. Those who were not part of the morris team or one of musicians were given either plates of food, jugs of cider or apple juice, or torches that would be lit when the procession began. At last every single person who should be there was, chattering excitedly and dressed for both the occasion and the weather would permit, and Wayland felt ready to set everything in motion.

He stepped to the front, garbed in the costume of the Wassail King – a moss coloured suit and a top hat crowned with greenery – and holding a staff of applewood and iron in one hand and a torch in the other. Eleanor lit his torch, despite the fact it was not yet dark, and once it was blazing he touched it to the ones she and Sarah held. They in turn lit the torches of those standing next to them and Wayland watched both flames and jubilation spread through the crowd.

He smiled and took a deep breath to steady himself. He always felt his nerves before the start, despite the fact he’d been leading the wassailing for nigh on fifteen years since his father passed and could do it in sleep.

Squaring his shoulders he swallowed hard then called ‘Ready?’

‘Ready!’ the villagers bellowed back.

Banging the base of his staff on the ground three times he started the walk towards the orchard, lifting his voice in song as he went.

‘Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green.
Here we come a-wand’ring so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too
And may we all be blessed with a most bountiful year.
May we be blessed with a bountiful year’

The morris dancers danced behind him, the accordion picked up the tune, the drums matching the beat of the morris sticks and behind them the villagers picked up the song as they wound their way through the streets of the Village. They danced past their own houses, up the High Street and past all the shops, around the church and the graveyard, past the Village hall, back past the pub and down past the smithy, finally arriving at the gate to the orchard and spilling inside. The villagers spread out through the bare, sleeping trees as the morris dancers finished their travelling Nos Galan and began an Y Goron in the green space in front of the cauldron where the Witch was waiting.

‘Hail to the Wassail King,’ she called to Wayland, once everyone was inside the boundaries of the orchard, all the food and drink had been placed on the tables, and the morris dancers had completed their last set.

‘Hail to the Wassail Queen,’ Wayland answered, moving up beside her and taking her hand.

‘Blessings be upon this place and all who gather for love of it,’ they said together, facing the villagers.

‘Blessings be upon the Wassail King and Queen,’ the villagers replied.

The Witch looked around, checking that each of the fire bowls had a torch bearer next to them.

‘We light these fires that this orchard may know the warmth of the sun and the love of all those who tend it,’ she said and the fires were lit, crackling cheerfully as smoke began to curl through the branches of the trees and the entwined scents of applewood and rosemary filled the air.

Wayland took a ladle full of the warmed cider out of the cauldron and stepped up to the oldest tree, lifting the ladle high so all could see it. 

‘We pour this cider that this orchard may know the nourishment of the rain and the love of all those who tend it,’ he said, pouring the golden liquid onto the tree’s gnarled and mossy roots.

Jimmy, dressed in his own moss green suit (although without a hat) and grinning broadly, walked up to the foot of the tree.

‘We gift this bread that this orchard may know the bounty of the earth and the love of all those who tend it,’ he shouted, far louder than was needed, as Wayland lifted him high so he could place the honey smeared slice of bread and honey into the crook between the largest two branches.

Once he was back on the ground Wayland and the Witch spoke together, everyone else joining in a moment later. 

‘We sing these words that this orchard may know the gentle kiss of the wind and the love of all those who tend to it.’

Harold squeezed a chord from his accordion and then they all sang:

‘Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel – Bushel – sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!’

Once the song was done Wayland raised his staff once once more.

‘We make this hullabaloo that this orchard may wake and know freedom from unwelcome spirits and the love of all those who tend to it.’

At once all the children banged their pots and pans as vigorously as they could and the villagers whooped and hollered and shouted and stamped their feet. The accordion wheezed and wailed, the drummers drummed their hardest and the morris team clashed sticks and rang their bells until the whole orchard fairly vibrated with sound, felt almost too small for it. Then Wayland banged his staff three times against the cauldron and everyone fell silent at once.

‘Come forward and fill your cups.’

It took surprising little time for the Witch and Wayland to ladle a measure of wassail from the cauldron into each persons cup (the children’s portions being suitably small). Once everyone else was served they filled their own cups, straightened up and raised them to the villagers.

‘Waes hael’ they called.

‘Drink hael’ everyone called back. Then they all drank together, emptying their cups.

With the ceremony over for another year it was time for the less formal but no less fun part of the celebration. The villagers ate and drank and danced and sang until the sky was black as pitch, the orchard was filled with warmth, and the air rang with mirth.

And, much later, as Wayland made his slightly unsteady and very exhausted way home, he could have sworn he heard the chatter of a magpie and the yaffle of a Betsy drift joyfully through the dark of the night.

One of the folk names for the green woodpecker is Laughing Betsy, so named for their loud, laugh-like cry (a cry also know as yaffling, hence the name Professor Yaffle for the woodpecker in Bagpuss, for those of you who remember that children’s show). They are also often called the weatherbird because their appearance is said to herald rain.

Orchard wassailing is a very old tradition but whether or not it is pagan in origin no one can be certain. Not that it matters, what matters is that it is done. Regarding timing, many believe it should be performed on either twelfth night, or 17th January (which would be twelfth night were we still on the Julian calendar) but in reality any time between Christmas and the end of March is perfectly acceptable as the aim of the wassail is to wake the trees to guarantee a good crop in the year ahead so as long as it happens before the trees start to bud you’re good. Although I’ve read about orchard wassails and seen some videos I have never attended one myself so please don’t get the idea that the description above is in any way authenic. I’ve just taken the basic elements of what wassailing is for, borrowed a couple of the traditional songs and chants, and built something that seemed to fit the ethos of the Wildwood and the Village and also fit the writing prompt.

And I should make it very clear that the idea of hearing the call of the green woodpecker for the first time in the year heralding the start of the growing season (and thus being celebrated by an orchard wassail) is very much my own invention; there has never, as far as I know, been any genuine folkloric association between woodpeckers, spring, and wassailing.

This is the first in a series of twelve stories I’m grouping under the title Flashes of Feathers, all set in the same Wildwood as the Twelve Tales of Flashmas. For more information about the whys and wherefores of this series please click on the master post link below:

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