It has been a bumper year for apples. A cold winter, followed by a hot summer, provided the perfect conditions for them to ripen. In the orchards of the south of England, thoughts have already turned to 2014′s fruit harvest.
To encourage the apple trees to grow well and to produce a good crop in the months ahead, local apple-growers take part in the ancient tradition of wassailing. The word ‘wassail’ originates from the Anglo-Saxon waes-haeil, meaning ‘to be healthy’ (a word which has endured in the phrase ‘hale and hearty’). The aim of wassailing is to persuade the apple trees to fruit well in the coming season by awakening and praising them, and by frightening away any evil spirits. Wassailing takes place in the evening, on or around the old Twelfth Night (17th January, according to the Gregorian calendar).
Historically, farm workers and villagers would walk to their local orchard, armed with lanterns; a pitcher full of cider; shotguns and cow horns. They would convene around the largest apple tree, fill their cups with cider and then pour it over the branches of the tree. The cups were refilled, and the revellers would sing to the apple tree, and toast it, encouraging it to fruit well next season. In order to drive away evil spirits, and to wake up the sleeping trees, they would make as much noise as they could: blowing horns, beating trays and firing shotguns into the highest branches. A wooden wassailing bowl containing a mixture of hot ale, sugar and roasted apples would be passed from house to house during the evenings of the Twelve Days of Christmas, as this wassailing song reflects:
Wassail, wassail all over the town.
Our toast it is white, and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree:
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.
Our family joined in the celebrations at a local community orchard. We wassailers carried torches and lanterns, and used percussion instruments, pots, and pans (rather than shotguns!) to make as much of a racket as we could. Wassailing songs were sung and the trees were doused with cider (with plenty left over to drink a toast!) The children helped to dress the largest tree with toast soaked in cider for the robins, who are traditionally believed to be the guardians of the spirits of the trees.
It is an ancient custom which is well worth upholding as an excellent way in which to start the year. As thoughts begin to turn to the growing season ahead, the wassailers have started the sap flowing. We may perhaps hope for another bumper crop of apples in the year to come.
Thanks for reading,