Sunday, January 5, 2014

January 17: Time to Go A-Wassailing

by Carol Kagan, Master Gardener
“Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
Peck-fulls, bushel-bag fulls.”

This song was sung during ORCHARD-VISITING wassailing (rhymes with fossil-ing), not to be confused with HOUSE-VISITING wassailing. The orchard wassail tradition is typically done on Twelfth Night (January 17 on the old Gregorian Calendar). It refers to visiting apple orchards to thank the trees for the past year and promote a good harvest in the coming year.

Wassailing is an old tradition, dating back to the 14th century, with lots of variations in communities. It means “to your health” in Old English.  Many communities in England still regularly hold January wassailing events.

Evening Wassails may include bonfires (Finniver Farm &Cidery)
Pennsylvania is the fourth highest U.S. apple producer and Franklin, Adams and York counties have ample apple orchards. Sadly, there're no local wassail events but the tradition is interesting. Terhune Farms in New Jersey holds annual wassailing as does Linville Orchards in Media, Pennsylvania.

Originally, the wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted crab apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar.  It was served indoors from large bowls. After partaking of cider (wassail bowl has alcohol) and cake, people would go out into the orchard carrying an earthen-ware cup of cider and some cake. 

The cake is soaked with cider and left in the tree branches for the birds. (Perhaps drunken birds sing louder and make the trees happier.)

Tying bread crumbs in a tree to honor the robins (Finniver Farm & Cidery)

 Cider is then poured around the tree roots and various songs sung such as
“Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow
Hats- full! Caps- full!
Bushel-bushel-sacks full,
And my pockets full, too, huzza!”
In some variations the aim is to wake the apple trees and scare away evil spirits. Shouting, noise makers and musket shots can be part of the ritual. Other variations  include a wassail King or Queen to lead a processional through the countryside, visiting a number of orchards.
A folktale from Somerset reflecting this custom tells of the "Apple Tree Man", the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and in whom the fertility of the orchard is said to reside. In the tale a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the Apple Tree Man who reveals to him the location of buried treasure.
In modern times the wassail tradition has been used to promote a good harvest or good growth of other plants besides apples. Is there something in the garden or yard you need to give a little boost for the coming growing season?
Should you wish to make some wassail and bundle up to go into the garden, Colonial Williamsburg provides this recipe:
  • 1 gallon apple cider
  • 1 large can unsweetened pineapple juice
  • 3/4 cup tea
Place in a cheesecloth sack:
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 1 tablespoon whole allspice
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
This is great cooked in a crock pot. Let it simmer very slowly for 4 to 6 hours. You can add water if it evaporates too much. At your discretion, alcohol may be added to taste. Serves 20.

Links for more information

Wikipedia: Wassailing
Colonial Williamsburg: Wassailing through History
Pennsylvania Colonial Plantation: Christmas at the Farm Video
Edwardian Wassail from Ronald Hutton's Orchard: Video
Why Christmas: Wassailing and Mumming

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