As Blue Monday rolls around (supposedly the most depressing day of the year) there is reason for cheer and high jinks in the orchard. On Old Twelfth Night (January 17th) people have for hundreds of years “wassailed” their orchard to ensure a bountiful crop for the year to come. Not wanting to miss out we celebrated our first wassail last Saturday on a cold and frosty January night.
There are two types of traditional wassailing – the house-visiting wassail held at Yuletide and the orchard-visiting wassail. Wassail or “Waes hael” is Anglo Saxon for “be in good health”. The correct response to this greeting is “Drinc hael” which doesn’t actually have anything to do with drinking but didn’t stop our guests from taking a good slug of their mulled cider as they responded. The orchard visiting tradition extends back to ancient times and originates in the south west of England. The purpose of the wassail is to wake the cider tree, scare away evil spirits and make offerings to ensure a good harvest in the autumn. We invited 30 friends (many of whom had been involved in planting the orchard so they already had a vested interest) and started out with what we hope will be a long standing tradition.
To keep the cold at bay we lit a big fire for everyone to gather around. Old Christmas trees burn really well and are a great crowd pleaser! Serving a special fortified cider wassail punch gave everyone that extra inner glow. Traditionally the punch is served in one large wassail cup which everyone drinks from but we thought people wouldn’t really go for that (besides some of my friends are not good sharers!). We lit flaming “ogre-hunting” style torches from the fire and processed out over the frozen field to start the ceremonies (fire, ice and alcohol – what could possibly go wrong?). Our next task was to sing to the trees. There are many traditional songs for this and at well established wassails the singing and dancing can get quite boisterous. I started out with a solo rendition of “Old Apple Tree” and everyone joined in the shouted chant –
Apples enow, hats-full, caps-full
Tallets all full, barn floor full, and a little heap under the stairs
( a tallet is a welsh word for a barn loft used for storing apples).
My next job as Wassail Queen (a title I’m kind-of liking a lot) was to make offerings to the tree by dipping bits of bread in the wassail cup and hanging them on the tree. This is the origin of the “toast” when drinking to someones health. A liberal pouring of cider from the wassail cup, sharing last years harvest, over the tree’s roots, and our offerings were complete. At this everyone started to make as much noise as they possibly could using a variety of drums, whistles, pots and pans and even, bizarrely, a triangle until the firing of a shotgun gave the signal to stop. That took care of the evil spirits! Our work done we trooped back to the cidery to regale ourselves on soup, sausages and more cider punch.
Whether this will mean a bumper yield of cider apples remains to be seen, but it was a fun way to spend a Saturday evening and I do have to report that the toasts were missing when I checked the tree the next day……….