This year, we added a new ritual and celebration to our holiday season at Briar and Bramble…we wassailed the apple trees.
This wasn’t exactly the Christmas carol interpretation of wassailing…or what people would describe as wassailing. To most (Americans, anyway), that vaguely means drinking a type of spiked punch that eventually loosens the tongue to drunken, off key caroling at holiday parties. Originating from the Anglo Saxon period, the term “wassailing” comes from the toast “Waes Hael”…a wish for good health. It became a common practice to visit neighbors and family, toasting their health and prosperity, in the holiday season. Caroling, gatherings, and celebrations followed with time, and the song “Here We Come, A-Wassailing (Caroling)” entered our holiday lexicon.
Apple (or orchard) wassailing is an ancient custom that was once most prevalent in the southern regions of England, such as Somerset and Devon. As with many old rituals, there is question surrounding its origins, age, interpretation, and even actual date. There appear to be two dates, depending on which tradition and calendar you prefer to favor- Twelfth Night/Day (January 6th), or “Old New Years” (January 17th). On either of those dates, tradition holds that revelers fill their mugs and glasses with apple wassail, grab their lanterns and torches, and proceed to find the oldest tree in the orchard. They offer the Apple Tree Man (the spirit of the orchard) a wassailing song, place a piece of bread soaked in cider at the base of the tree or in the branches, and pour cider onto the roots- ensuring the health of the trees and a good crop of fruit in the coming season.
I was intrigued by this, not only as a history buff and Anglophile, but also because we have taken the very tentative first steps into starting an orchard. I have always loved apple orchards and longed to have one of my own. There is just something about apple trees…their gnarled, wizened shape, the appealing and odd names of the heirloom varieties, the beauty of their flowers, the smell of the windfalls, the continuity of their growth with the history of the land…they have always just seemed magical to me. It may be that they feel like a tangible connection to history. I love the heirloom varieties and the thought that there are some trees (or grafts of trees) on old New England farmsteads whose origins date back as early as the 1700s.
We were thrilled to find a mature wild apple tree growing just outside the back of the house when we moved in. It has produced a fair amount of very small, yet surprisingly tasty fruits. We took a few specimens to the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association (MOFGA) Apple Day, hoping to hear that it is a previously unknown example of a rare heirloom variety. We were told that it’s a wild tree, and thus a unique variety of its own. My husband and I think that it’s lovely that Briar and Bramble has its very own unique apple, but we still wanted to have some historical varieties.
So we’ve added four young saplings…the beginnings of our own little orchard. Each tree is a different variety, and most are heirloom- Northern Spy, Black Oxford, Liberty, and Hurlbut. We are learning as we go, with the help of resources such as MOFGA, family wisdom, and books. Judging by the nibbling that has occurred on the branch tips despite netting and caging, I think we probably need to focus more on exorcising the deer rather than appealing to tree spirits. However, since we are committed to a mostly organic and natural garden, and have essentially declared Briar and Bramble to be a wildlife refuge, we are left with the option of pouring cider on the roots of our trees by lantern light on a cold January night!
Although there was a lot to occupy our attention on January 6th, we did manage to take a few minutes to turn to the past and continue the tradition of apple wassailing. We filled a bowl with cider and a slice of bread, topped our mugs with hard cider (a necessity for proper wassailing!), bundled into coats and boots, and tromped through the snow into the backyard to visit our old wild tree. I recited the wassail song and we toasted our trees and one another, wishing and hoping, like so many generations before us, for health, prosperity, and a bountiful crop in the year ahead.
One of many variations of the traditional apple wassailing songs from the 18th and 19th centuries, this particular song is from the Somerset region of England:
Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee, Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow, Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills, Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler biys, holler hurrah.
As holiday break draws to a close, we received one last gift…snowfall. A quiet, contemplative snow…the type that makes the likes of Robert Frost pause in the wood to contemplate the passage of time and distance.
It’s the type of snow day unique and rare, especially in our modern times. One that you can pull around your shoulders, a blanket of white, and peek out from under…knowing that the day’s only request is that you look about the landscape it has created with a sense of wonder. There were no plans today…no need to be present in a particular place, but rather a chance to be present in this moment in time. No obligations to fulfill, no need to feel the frustration, disappointment, or fear that typically accompanies a snow day for the modern adult. No frantic thoughts of road conditions, grocery supplies, appointments postponed, or late arrivals. A rare chance to watch how delicately and slowly the flakes fall…capture the brief flashes of sunlight play on the tree branches…curl up next to a fire with a book…enjoy the holiday decorations before they are trundled away into boxes once again.
We decide to spend some time in the Parlor, my husband with a book, and I with a sleeping dog draped over my feet. It’s one of our favorite rooms in the house…it just feels old. We’ve encouraged that by making it our “antique” room, though it should really be called the “tag sale” room if we’re honest. It’s a mish-mash of chairs and trunks from neighboring attics, a collection of well worn and slightly mildewy books on Maine history and horses, a bouquet of dried flowers from our wedding, and prints on all the walls. Some of these are old (the hunt scene and landscape from a shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile), some slightly old (the Currier and Ives reprint of a racing yacht and the life sized fox scampering across the far wall), and the not-so-old reproductions of an elegant chap on horseback, and copy of the pre-Civil War map of own town. The room is still dressed for Christmas with greens on the mantle and a tree in the corner. The Parlor is the place that we come to when we want to escape our time.
It seems an especially fitting setting this afternoon as the snow filled day slides into a muffled dusk. It’s not lost on me how fortunate we are to be in Briar and Bramble in 2021 on a Saturday off from work. The inhabitants of 1823 likely also sat in this room on a snowy January afternoon, but without the warmth and comforts we are enjoying. It would have been brutally cold. The fireplace in this room, though beautiful, is also very small. We are not dependent on its heat, as our counterparts would have been. We have learned, however, how much work it is to heat an old home.
I’ve always been frugal on heating, as any of my friends will vocally and vociferously attest to. So is my husband. But even we were unpleasantly surprised last winter when the cold first settled in. That was the weekend we learned how to insulate. We wriggled into the back of one of the closets, through the cubby hole that revealed the attic space in the dormers. There was some insulation, but it was old and ratty. (Likely literally ratty, at some point.) We set to work, laying down what looked like layers of toxic cotton candy. My husband earned his handyman stripes that weekend. It helped, but it was still a long winter of wood stove feeding, blankets, and gallons of tea and coffee. This autumn, we called in the professionals…and I now understand the benefits of blown-in insulation.
I think often of what life was like here in 1823. The woodpile would be higher, the fire burning brighter and longer in the hearth, and woolen blankets thicker. I know that I am blessed to be able to just stop today and contemplate the beauty of the snow, safe in the knowledge that though the storm may continue outside, I will be in warmth and comfort inside. Though they would have had no place to go, our counterparts would have doubtlessly experienced anxiety and fear in the winter months. Many would be the miles (and chores) before they could sleep. Did they stop though, and look out over the frigid bay or at the wooded hill behind them, and feel the wonder of the white landscape? Did they share a sense of the delicate beauty of snow? I like to think so.
Welcome to Briar and Bramble! This is meant to be a journal, or diary, of my and my husband’s life in an 1823 farmhouse cottage on the coast of Maine. Although we had both lived in Maine for over a decade, in the summer of 2019 we purchased our first property of our own, and have slowly begun to transform a house and land into a beloved home. Won’t you pull a chair beside the wood stove, wrap your hands around a warm cup of tea, and join us?
Let me introduce our little family and this place we call home. This is the story of my husband, our little dog, and myself. My husband and I have arrived in this place at this point of middle age somewhat “late” and rather bewildered. My husband, and I, two working professionals, had spent our younger years lost in books and wandering the same historic sites and trails…just never at quite the same time. So while our friends had all established careers, found partners, purchased homes, and learned to repair toilets and spackle walls- we were still eating dinners in front of the TVs of our rentals, wondering whether third wheels are truly only appreciated on tricycles! Finally, in 2015, we stumbled into each other. We married in 2018, and began searching for a home in spring of 2019. My husband would have preferred to spend some time recovering from the constant whirlwind of wedding planning that I had subjected him to the year before, but I was eager to begin the ultimate project- creating a nest!
Even before Covid, winter in Maine was a long, quiet period of hibernation. Unless you ski or snowmobile…which we do not. We do something on cross country skis…Anyway, winter becomes spring in name only, with mud being the only differentiating characteristic. There wasn’t much going on that spring…I was mostly out of commission after injuring my arm falling off a horse. So it seemed like a good time to spend weekends driving around looking at real estate. Or at least I thought so. Besides, I assured my husband, we were just looking. So we could understand the process better. When we decided to become serious about it. In the future.
A few short weeks and multiple house showings later, we found ourselves bumping along a steep, winding, rutted drive to see a listing that had caught my husband’s eye. By now, we had almost accidentally enlisted the aid of a lovely (and incredibly patient) real estate agent and had become frequent fliers on realtor.com. I’ll be honest. I needed some convincing as we approached the door that first time. The driveway was straight out of a backwoods nightmare, the front “field” was a mess of newly felled trees piled onto each other like pick-up sticks, and the house itself- perched on the hillside- was drab and almost a little creepy. There was a bit of a yard, though that was a small island with waves of poison ivy and Virginia creeper lapping along its edges. However, as we stepped onto the long porch and turned around, we both stifled gasps. For without the thicket of previously standing trees, the house could gaze out over the sea. The Bay and rolling hills were spread out before us on the long line of the horizon. Our agent, who had not seen this listing before, came up behind us, stopped, and just said “Oh. Wow…”
The surprises didn’t end there. Although the house hadn’t been lived in for almost 10 years, the current owner had been slowly renovating while still maintaining the historical details. There was a newer addition that included a Great Room with a huge stone hearth and wood stove, as well as an expansive master bedroom above. This flowed into the old farmhouse cottage with its exposed beams, original mantelpiece and wainscoting, old latches and French doors, small cubby hole closets, slightly uneven floors, and plaster walls. And yet the kitchen and bathrooms were newly renovated and sparkling. There had to be something horribly wrong with this place, we thought. Was it structurally unsound?
Beautiful old homes in Maine are notorious for frightening basements. Many potential home buyers have a story of the Dream Home they fell for, only to have their hopes dashed when they descended into the cellar to find that the foundation is a pile of crumbling stone and earth, and the house is precariously perched on a wobbly network of jacks. So it was not without trepidation that we opened the basement door. What we found, however, was a combination of modern concrete and the original, massive brick arch. This was a house that had been cared for over the years and had (thus far) withstood the test of time.
We finished the tour and got back into the car where we sat in stunned silence. Our budget was fairly modest. Never in our wildest dreams (or even my most ambitious wish list) did we think that something like this would be within our reach. Like a polished piece of sea glass, easily overlooked, but shining and beautiful when seen in the light, we had found something precious along this shore.
That was a little over a year ago. Since then, we have started to make this our home. This is where we are meant to stay. Our plans and small changes are always with an eye to the future- How will this garden grow over the next five years? Will the apple tree saplings block the view in ten years? Will those roof beams last another fifty years? We have been learning all about home care and repair (thanks in large part to my Father), and laugh that we are coming at this about twenty years later than most couples. But we couldn’t be happier.
And so, Reader, though we do everything on a budget, and do not profess in any way to be interior designers, professional landscapers, or experts in historic preservation, everything that we do on the house, we do with love- and I hope that shows. The purpose of this blog, then, is not to tell you how to decorate your own home, or grow your garden. It’s certainly not to show off our skills in home repair, crafting, cooking, or life in general. We are fumbling at best in most of these things! No, the purpose is more just to share the things that make us happy about this place that we have come to love. If you happen to see a plant that you’d like to add to your garden, or realize how easy it is to refinish a porch rocker and decide to do it yourself, or even just see a picture here that makes you smile…well, then the blog has been a success!
Finally, before I open the door and invite you in- a note on the name of the house. We had a few reasons to choose the name Briar and Bramble, but most significantly, it refers to a song from one of our favorite programs-
“Will you search through the lonely earth for me? Climb through the briar and bramble? I will be your treasure…” (lyrics by Johnny Flynn)