Thursday, December 24

The Apple Wassail

Wassailing, I discovered recently is not just a practice of walking from house to house caroling during the holy days of the year, but is also an old practice, taken up in orchards in mid-winter by farmers and country folk.  In his book Wild Apples, Henry David Thoreau recalls the following:

"On Christmas eve the farmers and their men in Devonshire take a large bowl of cider, with a toast in it, and carrying it in state to the orchard, they salute the apple-trees with much ceremony, in order to make them bear well the next season."  This salutation consists in "throwing some of the cider about the roots of the tree, placing bits of the toast on the branches," and then "encircling one of the best bearing trees in the orchard, they drink the following toast three several times --
                                           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!

"They then shout in chorus, one of the boys accompanying them on a cow's  horn.  During this ceremony they rap the trees with their sticks."  This is called "wassailing" the trees, and is thought by some to be "a relic of the heathen sacrifice to Pomona"

Apple wassailing is thought to have originated in the cider orchards of Southwest England.  The first known mention of wassailing was in 1585 in Fordwich, Kent, a small town on the River Stour near Canterbury, England.  The practice, which is thought to "bless" the tree, quite possibly originated from pagan roots, and may have evolved independently of the more commonly recognized form of wassailing.  The general understanding was that the singing and noise made by wassailing would awaken the apple trees from winter sleep and scare away any evil spirits, making way for a good crop the following autumn.
Wassail bowls, which were used to carry the cider and bread to the orchard, could sometimes be very ornate.  Often the shape of a large goblet,  more elaborate ones would be decorated with silver decorations.  More common however, were bowls made from white maple, which were commonly used by poorer peasants.  
If one would like to wassail in the old way, the tradition is still very much alive in parts of England.  If one were to visit Somerset or Devon in the Southwest of England on January 7th (the historic 12th night), they would find crowds of wassailers making there way from orchard to orchard, making general merriment in hopes of a good harvest to come.
If you find yourself in an orchard this season or just strolling past a scraggly crab apple, lonely in the deep dusk of a winter afternoon, give the trunk a good wrap.  Look for the deep red of that one apple that never fell and still clings under the burden of the falling snow.  Stand for a moment in the solitude of the coming darkness and let the thought of warm tangy cider on your tongue comfort you and the brisk wind that nips your face evoke the crisp of a late fall apple.  Give a good shout and awaken the tree with this verse:                              

Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray the God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big.
Every bough, apples now.

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