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.