Category Archives: The Wassail

Guest Post: Wassail: An Unexpected Revival by Maria Kennedy

We’ve been following the writings of Maria Kennedy at Cider With Maria for some time, and were very pleasantly surprised to find ourselves seated next to her at Proletariat’s 2013 Cider Week NY tasting event with Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cider.
We share an interest in cider culture, and as part of our ongoing explorations into Wassail history and traditions, Maria kindly agreed to shared her post Wassail: An Unexpected Revival
with us.
Enjoy!

Wassail: An Unexpected Revival

by Maria Kennedy

Image
Flyer for the Foxwhelp Morris Wassail, Preston on Wye 2012

I was sitting it a pub in East Hackney, London one January night a few years ago trying to convince a young man from Portsmouth that English people did in fact practice the custom of wassail.  “Wassail?” he said.  “I’ve never heard of that.  English people don’t do that.  I don’t believe you.”  I parried his aura of certainty with my own indisputable fact: I had just travelled down to a remote corner of Devonshire to participate in a wassail.  I had seen it for myself.  We had traipsed round a village in the Blackdown Hills singing for cider and wishing good health to the farmhouse, the garage, the old vicarage, the pub, and finally the orchard itself. English people DO wassail.

The young man’s incredulity about the existence of this custom is understandable, though.  With a few notable exceptions of wassail celebrations that claim to have survived unbroken into the present, such as the one at Carhampton, Somerset, the custom seems to have died out or disappeared most everywhere else, surviving only as a festive Christmas drink or an obsolete word in a carol.  In the past few years, however, a notable revival has been rising, and as several of my friends in England put it, everyone seems to want to have a wassail now.

So why did wassailing die out in England, and why is it being revived now?  These were some of the questions I set out to answer when I first trekked out to torchlit winter processions on the twelfth night of Christmas in Devon, and later Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, and Worcestershire.

Many people think of Wassail as a remnant pagan custom, and it is easy to see why, when black-faced Morris men lead hordes of otherwise tame urbanites carrying torches through old orchards to sing to the apple trees and scare off witches with gunfire.  It’s an enthusiastic performance of what some might think of as a primitive, superstitious approach to life, which might seem refreshing after the daily grind of rational civility. Being outside after the endless indoor Christmas parties feels like a release, and the bonfires and torches light up the night in a way that wakes your tired soul from the dreary sleep of midwinter. And the cider, well the cider just makes you feel sublime, a bit euphoric.  The torches seem brighter.  The night seems blacker.  And it feels like anything is possible inside the circle of trees that almost seem alive.

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Morris Man from Silurian Morris at the Tenbury Wassail 2013

I think the custom’s visceral tactile appeal stems from the sensory stimulation of frost and fire and the imaginative tunnel of superstition usually silenced in a society based on scientific rationality.  It’s an opportunity to get out and be a little wild for a night, and that’s what rituals and festivals are often good for, shaking up our everyday habits and injecting the mundane world with mystery and significance we don’t usually feel.

Some of the people I came to know who had helped revive wassail over the last twenty years had a much less superstitious orientation to the custom, though, and their perspectives shed light on some of the social realities of rural agricultural life and highlight the enormous social changes it has undergone in the past century.  Wassail, a custom historically based in rural society and food production, has something to teach us about the changing ways we work with each other, as well as the ways we interact with natural and agricultural resources.

For Eric Freeman, a life-long farmer in the rural countryside of Gloucestershire, and his friends Pete Symonds, a former electrician from the Forest of Dean, and Albert Rixen, a plumber and engineer, wassail was a tribute to the work of the agricultural year and an emblem of the social contract between farmers and their agricultural workers. Pete Symonds is a skilled tradesman in a rural community whose livelihood suffered with the outsourcing of industrial work overseas.  He saw in wassail the opportunity to celebrate the social bonds of working men and commemorate the cooperative nature of agricultural labor in an era before industrialization. Albert Rixen, devoted to restoring old steam engines, including antique steam powered cider equipment, also lends his workman’s approach to wassail and cider making, keeping alive the mechanical heritage of agricultural work.  Eric Freeman, a tireless supporter of agriculturally-oriented social networks such as the Young Farmers and groups devoted to saving rare breeds of livestock, has dedicated much of his life to the practice of farming not just as a business or even a personal vocation, but a way of life still full of social and cultural richness.

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Eric Freeman holding the Wassail Cup at his annual Wassail in Huntley, Gloucestershire

For these men, the resurrection of the custom of wassail was not about superstition at all.  The considerable labor involved in preparing the bonfires and torches and orchestrating the festival mirrored the kind of labor they wanted to celebrate – shared labor, social labor, the kind of labor that was necessary to keep a pre-industrial farm going.  This is the kind of labor that makes work worthwhile, and which seems to be slipping away in a world of global markets, where labor is outsourced, rural communities are left slowly crumbling, and agriculture produces commodities instead of food.

It’s also important to remember that the social contract didn’t always work, that standards of living for agricultural workers in the pre-industrial era were generally dire.  But wassail was a moment when the contract was tested, when the workers held the orchard and the farm hostage for a night, demanding food and drink from their employers in return for performing the wassail and ensuring a fertile crop in the year to come.  Superstition becomes bare social reality here, because without a satisfied workforce, the farm could not be productive.  Without workers, there would be no harvest, no fertility.  Wassail was a kind of symbolic labor negotiation, with the potential harvest hanging in the balance.  And the next Monday after twelfth night, known as Plough Monday, work started again.  The fields were ploughed for the coming year.

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Leominster Morris Wassail in Eardisley, Herefordshire 2013

It all seems a bit serious for a rowdy evening of cider drinking, morris dancing, and bonfire lighting.  And don’t get me wrong, sometimes of the most obvious reasons to join in a wassail is simply for a good prank, a good drink, and an excuse to dress up in funny costumes and indulge in a little pyromania.  But the interplay of superstition, social history, and a walloping good time is what makes wassail a tradition with depth and complexity that can appeal to people on many levels, even as they face adapting to economic, social, and environmental change in their communities.

Can wassail take hold in North America?  A real, strong tradition here will depend on our own social needs and reasons for adopting a custom.  It will be exciting to see how it takes shape as we begin to re-invest attention in our agriculture, our orchards, and our cider.  In a way, the social contract we are now re-exploring with our food system, our environment, and our economies makes wassail all the more relevant, and the tables have turned.  Wassail, in all its irreverent topsy-turvy midwinter glory, reminds us that agriculture and food production, even in our industrialized, exploitative, globalized era is still a social, and an environmental contract.  In an old-fashioned way, it poses the question “Are we in it together folks?”  And its pretty exciting to hear folks replying: “Here’s to thee old apple tree.”

ImageOrchard near Preston on Wye, Herefordshire, Foxwhelp Morris Wassail 2012
Wassail: An Unexpected Revival all content and photographs copyright Maria Kennedy.
We encourage you to read more from Maria Kennedy at her blog: ciderwithmaria.wordpress.com
and
Take a listen to these interviews with Maria on Earth Eats:
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It’s The Annual Call To Wassail. January 5th -17th, 2015.

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

A Call To Wassail. January 5th – 17th, 2015.

Hello Friends of Cider!

We ask YOU the cider community to join us in embracing Wassail in 2015.

What is Wassail?

Wikipedia:

“The Orchard-Visiting wassail refers to the ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions of England, reciting incantations and singing to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.”

Herefordshire Times:

“Steeped in history, wassailing is traditionally held on the Twelfth Night after Christmas and performed in orchards to awaken the apple trees from their winter slumber and ward off bad spirits.”

When is Wassail?

We propose to observe North American celebrations from January 5th to  January 17th, 2015. (‘New’ 12th Night Eve to ‘Old’ 12th Night – more about that later).

Goals for the 2015 Wassail:

Explore Old & New World Wassail Traditions

Salute The Orchard

Honor The Apple

Celebrate With Cider

How Can You Wassail?

Enjoy cider and a wassail bowl with friends.

Visit an orchard, cidermaker or local cider-serving establishment and toast the orchard & the apple.

Host a Wassail Event.

Or just raise a glass to Cider.

Let us know if you’ve planned an event – we’ll post it on our Wassail 2015 page.

If you tweet about your cider activities – consider using the hashtag #Wassail2015.

The 2015 Wassail Theme: Explore Wassail.

We hope this will be an informal collaborative effort and an annual event for the growing cider community in North America.

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

Take a look at our Wassail 2015 page for more information, links, and recipes.

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Wassail Traditions: The 5 Key Elements.

The Wassailing

Wassail In 5 Easy Steps.

The 5 Key Elements of Orchard Wassail As Outlined by NACM:

“The rite involves five main elements: gathering around an apple tree, singing the Wassailing song, pouring cider over the tree’s roots, loud noises and a toast.”

Rackham-Winter Trees

1 – Gather Around The Apple Tree.

2 – Sing Wassail Song(s) (There are several traditional songs & many variations).

3 – Pour Cider Over The Tree’s Roots (and place cider-toast in branches).

4 – Make Loud Noises (suggested implements: pots, pans, rattles, musicians, fireworks).

5 – TOAST! Salute the orchard, the apple, and the past & future harvest. (With cider, a Wassail bowl, or punch of your own devising).

Whether in the orchard, city, town, or on the farm, we encourage you to take these elements and discover/explore and create a Wassail event of your own.

Mark your calendars now, and start making plans for Wassail 2015.

NACM Wassail information  at cideruk.com

Rackham Lady's Apple

– Not near an orchard? Seek out local parks, or friendly neighbors with pome fruit trees, sites of trees & orchards of yesteryear, or devise a suitable stand-in, an elegant bowl of apples – or a spray crabapple branches, etc.

– As North American Wassailers we will continue to explore local & regional wassail culture and hope to uncover indigenous tunes & rituals, and share our discoveries for 2015.

Note: Repurposing New Year’s Eve noise-makers is a handy & thrifty way to get your Wassail noise-making kit started.

Images from A Dish of Apples by Eden Phillpotts, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1921. View or download at Internet Archive archive.org.

Come All Ye Cider Drinkers And Join In The Wassail!

 

When is Wassail? We suggest observing North American Wassail celebrations from January 5th to  January 17th, 2014.*

Wassail is an informal collaborative effort of interested cider-drinkers in North America (and beyond).

Goals for the 2014 Wassail: Explore Old & New World Wassail Traditions, Salute The Orchard, Honor The Apple and Celebrate With Cider!

How Can You Wassail? It’s Easy! Enjoy cider and a wassail bowl with friends, visit an orchard, cidermaker or local cider-serving establishment and toast the orchard & the apple, or host a Wassail event of your own.

Let us know if you’re planning an event – we’ll post it on the Wassail 2014 page.

Share your Wassailing plans and pictures. Post, tweet, tumble and instagram The Wassail!

* We’re considering Wassailing all the way through January. Why not?!

 

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Wassail Day 1. We Salute Ye Olde Quince Trees.

Wassail Day 1. We Salute Ye Olde Quince Trees.

January 5th, 2014

The Plan: A visit to The Cloisters Museum to Wassail the 4 quince trees that live in the Bonnefont Cloister.

Capital detail Cruxa Cloister

The Wassail Implements: An empty soda can re-filled with dried beans – a bit of tape over the top to secure said beans, and a small travel-size plastic cosmetics bottle filled with 2 oz. of Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandy. Old World, New World Wassail To Go DIY Pocket Kit.*

The Cloisters Museum botanical collection includes pollarded crab apple trees, espaliered pears, exotic potted citrus fruits, and the famed quinces. Snowy conditions made it impossible to access the courtyards where the crab apples and quince reside, we could only view them through the frost-steamed windows of the Cruxa & Bonnefont Cloisters. We wished them a quiet Good Health and Good Fortune and vowed to return when the gardens were accessible in Spring.

A gallery talk, led by a knowledgeable and genial guide, focused on details of medieval life in the winter months, examining the seasonal feasting rituals and agricultural tasks that occupied the waking hours of medieval folk, including the varied wassailing traditions observed in the manor hall, monastery and village.

Pollarded crab apple trees Cruxa Cloister

Pollarded crab apple trees in Cruxa Cloister

Read about the fascinating “medieval technique of hard pruning, known as pollarding” in this article, Woodsman, Pollard That Tree.

*repurposed New Years noisemakers are a perfect addition to the DIY-Wassail To Go Kit.

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Wassail Day 1. Fortifying with Pear Brandy. Olmsted’s Sidecar Cocktail.

Wassail Day 1. Fortifying with Pear Brandy. Olmsted’s Sidecar Cocktail.

January 5, 2014.

The Plan: Locate and Wassail the four famous and beloved quince trees inside The Cloisters Museum at Fort Tryon Park.

As the site of the quince cloister garden IS in a museum – we reasoned our Wassail activities would need to be discrete, if not completely covert. The park was covered with snow, the air was frosty, and we decided a pre-Wassail ‘warming’ beverage to fortify ourselves was in order.

The New Leaf Restaurant & Bar, located in a 1930’s era rustic deco-medieval structure originally built as a concession stand for Fort Tryon Park, proved the perfect spot to enjoy a surprisingly tasty brunch and a Wassail-appropriate cocktail to launch the festivities.

Sidecar

The Cocktail: Olmstead’s Sidecar

Ingredients: Koval Organic Ginger Liqueur, pear cognac, and lemon.

Olmsted’s Sidecar is made with Koval organic ginger liqueur (produced by a craft distillery in Chicago and hand bottled), pear cognac and lemon. Named for Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the landscape architect who planned Fort Tryon Park, which was completed in 1935. He is the son of the designer of Central Park.”

New Leaf Restaurant & Bar newleafrestaurant.com

“New Leaf is an enterprise of the non-profit New York Restoration Project (NYRP). All net proceeds support NYRP’s mission of creating a greener, more sustainable NYC. Learn more at www.nyrp.org.”

KOVAL Distillery www.koval-distillery.com

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These Days of Wassailing

POM00001121

Hello Friends of Cider!  Join us in embracing Wassail in 2014.

We’re observing North American celebrations from January 5th to January 17th, 2014*, from ‘New’ 12th Night Eve to ‘Old’ 12th Night.

Our Goals for The 2014 Wassail: Explore Old & New World Wassail Traditions, Salute The Orchard, Honor The Apple, and Celebrate With Cider.

How are WE Wassailing? To being the festivities, January 5th, 2014, we visited “the four beloved quinces at the Cloisters Museum and Gardens, along the Hudson River in Fort Tryon Park.” The Wassail did not go as planned, but Pomona surprised us with an amazing Wassail Wonder.

Read more about the New York Quinces in this piece In Praise of the Misunderstood Quince by By Michael Tortorello, published May 2, 2012 in the New York Times.

*Note: Our Wassailing activities are likely to continue throughout the month of January 2014, yours can too!

Image: Specimen 8168   Artist: Prestele, William Henry, 1838-1895

Scientific name: Cydonia oblonga  Common name: quinces  Variety: Bourgeat

Source: “U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705”

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It Begins. 13 Days of Wassailing 2014.

Ansel Adams Yosemite

Join Us In Wassailing.

We’re observing North American celebrations from January 5th to January 17th, 2014 – ‘New’ 12th Night Eve to ‘Old’ 12th Night – and posting daily about our Wassail adventures. Stay tuned.

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A Call To Wassail. January 5th -17th, 2014.

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

A Call To Wassail. January 5th – 17th, 2014.

Hello Friends of Cider!

We ask YOU the cider community to join us in embracing Wassail in 2014.

What is Wassail?

Wikipedia:

“The Orchard-Visiting wassail refers to the ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions of England, reciting incantations and singing to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.”

Herefordshire Times:

“Steeped in history, wassailing is traditionally held on the Twelfth Night after Christmas and performed in orchards to awaken the apple trees from their winter slumber and ward off bad spirits.”

When is Wassail?

We propose to observe North American celebrations from January 5th to  January 17th, 2014. (‘New’ 12th Night Eve to ‘Old’ 12th Night – more about that later).

Goals for the 2014 Wassail:

Explore Old & New World Wassail Traditions

Salute The Orchard

Honor The Apple

Celebrate With Cider

How Can You Wassail?

Enjoy cider and a wassail bowl with friends.

Visit an orchard, cidermaker or local cider-serving establishment and toast the orchard & the apple.

Host a Wassail Event.

Let us know if you plan an event – we’ll post it on our Wassail 2014 page.

The 2014 Wassail Theme: Discover Wassail.

We hope this will be an informal collaborative effort and an annual event for the growing cider community in North America.

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

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