Christmas Carol Has Roots In Apple Orchards

During the holiday season, carolers often sing “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green.” While most people assume that wassailing is a type of holiday revelry, most don’t understand what it is. Wassailing, interestingly enough, has ties to tree fruit production in Medieval England as a way to ward off evil spirits, honor the trees for the season that just ended, and bless the trees for the season to come.

Orchards in the U.S. have been hosting wassailing events as a way to bring visitors to their venues during the typical off season.

For Pam Mount, co-owner of Terhune Orchards, a 200-acre apple orchard in Princeton, NJ, wassailing was a fun addition to many other seasonal events and festivals.

“We decided to have a little festival right in the middle of winter,” said Mount. “(It) is sort of an unusual idea, but it works and it attracts a little attention and people come out. It’s always fun for us and the people who work for us always have a good time.”

Crystie Kisler, co-owner of Finnriver Farm & Cidery in Chimacum, WA, notes “the apple orchard goes through a dramatic series of changes throughout the year and the health of our crop relies on our paying attention to these changes and tending to the trees according to our observations. The Wassail gives us an opportunity to check in with the trees and give them our attention and care. In the old days, folks believed that they needed to fend off evil spirits and invoke the protection of benevolent spirits. While we may not believe these same things today, we do find value and joy in blessing the trees and carrying on the tradition of caring for the orchard.”

“Our trees have given us so much fruit over the years, and now cider fruit as well, we wanted to give back to the orchard, and do more than just the basics of pruning, thinning, spraying, and harvesting. We were intrigued by the idea of ‘blessing the apple trees,” said Jolie DeVoto-Wade, co-owner of DeVoto Gardens & Orchards in Sebastopol, CA.

The History Behind The Event
Wassail comes from the Old Norse “ves heil” and the Old English “was hál” which means “to be in good health” or “be fortunate.” The phrase evolved from a used for toasts into a ritual in the cider-making regions of southern and western England. Wassailers would gather around an apple tree with pots and pans and other noise makers to scare away evil spirits.

The events are typically timed with the Twelfth Night celebrations.

“This old tradition started when the Molly Dancers (one plow worker dressed in a frock and other dressed in black) would go through the village and dance around and sing songs and make a lot of noise,” said Mount. “People who had apple trees and apple orchards would join in and they would give the Molly Dancers some hot cider or ale or something and dip old bread in cider and hang it on the trees to attract the good spirits of the orchard or good spirits that hang around the village and protect the trees through the winter so that they would have a good crop through the spring.”

Some would also pour the cider around the roots of the trees. In Medieval times, orchard laborers were paid in apple cider. Orchard owners would need a good crop to attract workers.

A-Wassailing In Modern Times
Although the tradition is steeped in history, orchard owners put their own unique spin on the seasonal event. Most involve noisemakers, dipping bread in a wassail mixture, and chanting and singing songs.

“Most years, depending on the weather, we have had an orchard parade with bagpipe and drum, followed by music and merriment with local choirs,” said Kisler. “We tie yarn with bread crumbs in the branches of the trees, to welcome the robins, and we make loud noises with pots and pans to recreate the tradition of warding off the negative spirits. We drink hot apple wassail punch and offer a toast, sing some traditional songs.

DeVoto Orchards hosted their first wassailing event in February 2013. They chose a night of a full moon to add to the atmosphere.

“We assign tasks to important people. There are the ‘merry men,’ who serve the wassail [cider], the ‘master of ceremony,’ who conducts the ceremony, the ‘evil spirits,’ who offer the wassailers a scar,” said DeVoto-Wade. “We eat, drink, be merry, and then march out to the oldest tree in the orchard. We praise the tree by eerily lighting it and offering it some wassail (the special brewed cider for the evening). There is an actual ceremony where we sing different wassail songs, and chant “HEALTH TO THE OLD APPLE TREE!” after every poem, reading, song, or ritual. There is always an evil spirit that we scare out of the orchard with the sounds of pots, pans, bongo drums, guitars.”

Mother Nature plays a key part in the outdoor wassailing event, like at Terhune Orchards.

“Sometimes we’ve had to plow out the orchard so that we could get out to the trees and hang our bread on them. We always have a little fire and we write out the chant that everybody chants together. Everybody grabs a noisemaker, chants away and puts the bread on the tree,” said Mount. “We serve our own hot cider to everybody and doughnuts, because we make cider doughnuts, of course. The kids roast marshmallows. I don’t think kids roasted marshmallows in 16th century England, but we do the roasting marshmallows part, just to make something fun for everyone to do.”

More To The Event Than Wassailing
Wassailing is an event surrounded by being together and celebrating, so it is only natural to extend that theme into an orchard’s farm market or offer some other element to the event.

“People bundle up (to go outside) and they bring their whole families and they spend the afternoon and we have singers in the farm store that sing old traditional songs like ‘Here We Come A-Wassailing’ and they’ve made up some songs about wassailing at Terhune Orchards and apples in the winter. Our store is of course open and our winery tasting room is open,” said Mount. “This is a family event. Our farm animals are here, if the roads aren’t covered with snow, we do a little wagon ride around, but mostly it’s just dancing with the Molly Dancers and making a lot of noise and roasting marshmallows and having a lot of fun.”

DeVoto Orchards also offered a farmhouse dinner and a bonfire to continue the celebrating. Careful care goes into the wassail, or beverage, used in the ceremonies.

“We make a special cider, or traditional wassail, just for the party. We ferment the cider, and then add in all spice, dried fruit, ginger, cinnamon, and other secret ingredients,” said DeVoto Wade.

Finnriver Farm & Cidery also has offered farmhouse supper and soups, storyteller, and campfire in years past. Usually, “we offer a treat like apple pie or cake,” said Kisler.

Why Should You Go A-Wassailing On Your Orchard
Mount saw the addition of a winter event as an easy way to get traction in her family’s farm market.

“Everybody is always trying to figure out how to market their farms a little bit and do things a little bit differently. We kind of assume that we have to have everything heated and be indoors and keep everybody comfortable but my view is that you look around your farm and you see what kind of stuff you have to offer,” said Mount. “We happen to have one orchard that we’ve kept with our big old trees that are 100 years old and they lend themselves quite nicely to this kind of traditional festival where most of our orchard is dwarf trees like everybody else.”

Mount also mentions that an event like wassailing attracts the local media as well as patrons, as an added bonus.

“It’s kind of hard to get any free news stuff in the middle of the winter so this kind of helped out a lot.” said Mount. “It just reminds people that we are still open and we’re here and there’s plenty of apples and cider here and fruits and vegetables and pies and cookies and all the stuff that we make.”

Most of all, people enjoy spending time in the orchard, says Kisler and DeVoto-Wade.

“Folks seem to really appreciate our efforts to host seasonal celebrations and generally express a lot of gratitude for giving them an opportunity to celebrate on farm land,” said Kisler.

“Everyone says, ‘That was different and Pagan, and it was awesome,’” says DeVoto-Wade.

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