Saturday, December 31, 2005

Wassail Your Troubles Away

wassailing Here's to the old pagan tradition of wassailing the apple trees. From the Sulgrave Manor website we read:
" Apple trees were sprinkled with wassail to ensure a good crop. Villagers would gather around the apple trees with shotguns or pots and pans and made a tremendous racket to raise the Sleeping Tree Spirit and to scare off demons. A toast was then drunk from the Wassail Cup. Wassailing was meant to keep the tree safe from evil spirits until the next year's apples appeared.

Oh apple tree, we'll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord does know where we may go
To be merry another year
To grow well and to bear well
And so merrily let us be
Let every man drink up his glass
And a health to the old apple tree
Brave boys, and a health to the old apple tree"
And a number of other variations on this theme can be found around the net, here:
"A cider-soaked cake is laid in the fork of a tree and then more cider is splashed on it. The men fire their guns into the tree and bang on pots and pans while the rest of the people bow their heads and sing the special `Wassail Song`. This custom is said to ward off bad spirits from the orchard and encourages the good spirits to provide a bountiful crop for the following year.
In other traditions, the men of the village went out to the orchards carrying the wassail bowl, to alternately serenade and browbeat the apple trees. There were songs, dances and libations (for tree and man) until finally, in frustration, the trees would be threatened with the axe if they did not produce well in the coming year. A newspaper account of 1851 documents Devonshire men firing guns (charged only with powder) at the trees."
and here:
"It was apparently an old midwinter custom (old Christmas eve or old twelfth night or some such time) to get together in an orchard and drink cider or strong beer, possibly warmed and spiced, have a bonfire, fire shotguns into the tres 'to frighten off hte evil spirits', sing, and depending on local tradition carry out various customs, the most common of which was for a piece of toast on which some cider had been poured to be put nto the oldest tree 'for the robins'. "
and here:
"Wassail is an ale-based drink seasoned with spices and honey. It was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. The Wassail bowl would be passed around with the greeting, 'Wassail'.
Wassail gets its name from the Old English term "waes hael", meaning "be well". It was a Saxon custom that, at the start of each year, the lord of the manor would shout 'waes hael'. The assembled crowd would reply 'drinc hael', meaning 'drink and be healthy'.
As time went on, the tradition was carried on by people going from door to door, bearing good wishes and a wassail bowl of hot, spiced ale. In return people in the houses gave them drink, money and Christmas fayre and they believed they would receive good luck for the year to come.
The contents of the bowl varied in different parts of the country, but a popular one was known as lambs wool. It consisted of ale, baked apples, sugar, spices, eggs, and cream served with little pieces of bread or toast. It was the bread floating on the top that made it look like lamb's wool."
BD20b24_0122wfThe recipe for making a wassail bowl found in The Joy of Cooking is about as authentic as you can get:
"WASSAIL
• 1 dozen apples
• 1 cup water
• 4 cups sugar
• 1 tablespoon grated nutmeg
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
• 6 whole cloves
• 6 allspice berries
• 1 stick cinnamon
• 1 dozen eggs, whites and yolks separated and reserved
• 4 bottles sherry or madeira
• 2 cups brandy
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Core and bake apples for about 30 minutes, until tender but not mushy.
In a saucepan, combine water, sugar, nutmeg, ginger, mace, cloves, allspice berries and cinnamon and boil for 5 minutes. Let cool.
Beat egg whites until stiff, forming soft peaks, but not dry. Separately, beat egg yolks until light in color. Gently fold whites into yolks, using large bowl. Strain cooled sugar and spice mixture through sieve into eggs, combining quickly. In separate pots, bring sherry or madeira and brandy almost to the boiling point.
Incorporate hot sherry or madeira with the spice and egg mixture, beginning slowly and stirring briskly with each addition. Toward the end of this process, add brandy. Just before serving and while mixture is still foaming, add baked apples. Serve in a heat-resistant punch bowl or in individual mugs."
You can read a similar recipe with song and story here.

A couple years ago some friends and we sang and danced around the old man apple tree in our back yard (the "old man" being the oldest, largest of the trees), and we had a remarkably huge crop of fruit from all the trees the following summer.

wassailWhile I can't recommend the activity for everyone, I enjoyed it immensely, and although the drink itself wasn't as tasty as I'd hoped for, it was an interesting exercise in reconnecting to the past. But on this, the nub end of the old year and the brink of the new, I can't think of anything better than to wish you all better days and better luck. As the old song says:

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.