Apple Trees, Cider and Old Twelfth Night
The 17th of January is Old Twelfth Night. In Somerset, Gloucestershire, Devonshire, Herefordshire and other apple growing areas of England it is a time to wassail the apple trees. The idea is to scare off bad spirits and encourage the good spirits to produce a bumper crop of apples.
A few years ago I went along with my fiddle to wassail young apple trees in a local orchard in Oxfordshire. I joined a group of musicians in the village hall and we played barn dance music until late. Towards midnight we went outside with villagers, people in historical costume and children banging saucepan lids. Some Morris Men lit the way with large flaming torches. The procession set off over the fields to the apple trees. By now the cider was beginning to work and we sang wassail songs, old songs and anything that seemed to suit the occasion.
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
We gathered round as those who seemed to know how to wassail placed toast soaked in cider in the branches of the trees and poured cider on the roots. More singing followed.
Behind me I saw what looked like fireflies. I went closer. The small points of fire were actually fuses. A couple of men in historical costume were twirling the fuses about their heads while others poured gunpowder down the muzzles of ancient guns. Their hands were steady in spite of the cider. The noise that followed scared every spirit for miles around.
The word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl, be in good health. The custom probably dates back to pagan times. During the Christmas period wassailing is usually in the form of house visiting.
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.
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