New Wassail for a New Year
The falling of snow has in my life often prompted the necessity of checking on our apple trees’ branches to ensure their supportive poles and hooks are in place and fortify the limbs against breakage under the accumulation. I’ve always felt blessed to have had the benefit of growing up with the assumption of conspicuous seasonal change with its demands and pleasures. In between the weather events, or sometimes in spite of light snows, this time of year is when we prune our silent trees to train for structure and prompt the growth of fruit bearing spurs. This window of opportunity offers the time needed to rid the tree of dead limbs subject to pathogens and open up dense growth; making it less conducive to pests. Rural imperatives influence world view in myriad ways. This last year I was driven to gain deeper understanding of what goes on underneath our trees and seek to produce soil more hospitable to abundant life activity. For generations people have been called to their fields, flocks, and orchards in attentive response to nature’s schedule. From dormancy to life’s budding activity, onto summer’s fruitful burden followed by the hoped for harvest, and then back to dormancy again.
Faith and I have from the time we met shared a common bond through music, good food and company, and an appreciation for perennial customs and the artisan trades that inform their purpose. This year we were eager to revive the ancient habit of Wassailing and recently observed the occasion at our farm in what will be an annual tradition for our family; we want to curate a richer holiday calendar for our son. For us it’s a thankful nod to the fruitfulness of this last year’s crop, grateful for the many happy visitors to our farm in a taxing year, and the ceremonious expression of hope for a good crop the next.
Our celebration of transition into a new growing season was graced with a moderate snowfall. Good friends joined us outdoors in genial humor to rekindle this old rite near the warming fires and resting trees to toast each other’s health and the health of the orchard.
"Here’s to thee, old apple tree’…
’Stand fast root, bear well top,
and Pray God send us a howling good crop.’
- Traditional Verse
Hot mugs in hand, we all travelled to the bottom our century old orchard around dusk and fixed upon one of our favorite Winesaps to represent the rest, standing at intervals. New to us, Faith and I sang an old song we had mutually discovered by different sources. Its ending refrain is rendered:
‘How well they may bloom, how well they may bear,
That we may have apples and cider next year.
For its our wassail, jolly wassail; joy come to our jolly wassail.’
- Traditional Song
The noun/verb, Wassail, is the rich cider or ale base taken hot with recipes of addition as historically diverse as the dialects voiced by the Island peoples for centuries to ‘waes hael!’ or roughly, ‘be healthy’ when drawing from the bowl. Generally, the reply was, ’drinc hael!’. Like the cultural melting pot that is Christmas, Wassailing in early winter, during or at the end of the Twelve Days, is one of those pre Christian modes of celebration to persist in the various regions of the British Isles to become adapted into the new religious culture and calendar. The social strata was given time to let off steam and bring people together of different station. Toast featured in the ceremonies as well; dipped in cider and placed in the fork of the tree or on the fruit bearing spur wood. All these bread and fruit giving gestures to the trees and soil; the chorus of call and response, observe a spirit of regeneration.
Regeneration practice in farming itself is the direction this last years’ strains prompted in me. I’ve heard good agronomy likened to a strong culture made increasingly resilient to external stresses. In regenerative agriculture the call and response communication between roots and microbes inside the soil provide nutriment. Protected by cover crops on the surface that later
break down and become part of the soil’s material, water holding capacity is increased and strong fungal networks are fostered. Related to this, I consider the customary chorus of cider aspersion in the orchard through wassailing to be a symbolic primer to the years attentions and hopes. In concluding our rite near the tree our company raised their cups and offered up a volley of hip hoorays drinking down the mixture. Respectively, it fell to me with my cup as a sort of aspergil to splash the ground under the tree in an offering of cider, its sugars returned to it on a bed of its own leaves.
Finishing with a shot from the musket over the tree to scare away evil, all of us repaired back to the fires at the top of the orchard stoked with our remaining Christmastime pine boughs. I played my neglected pipes for a bit as we refueled our mugs. Reveling a while after dark, visiting and catching up, then finally retiring from the orchard to our own hearths, it began snowing again; this time in earnest.
‘Bud well, bear well
God send you fare well;
Every sprig and every spray
A bushel of apples next New Year Day’.
-19th Century Worcestershire