Last weekend at St George’s Farm we hosted an informal ceremony to ‘wassail’ the newly planted fruit trees. The occasion also served as a thank you to the wonderful Wyre Community Land Trust volunteers who have worked hard planting trees over the past few months, and to all our new neighbours and friends who have made us feel so welcome here. A wassail, after the old Saxon ‘wes hal’ meaning good health, is a traditional ceremony held mainly in apple growing areas to encourage a good crop of fruit in the coming year.
While the weather was not as good as forecast at the start of the week, the rain mostly held off and the temperatures were, appropriately for the time of year, close to zero. The huge bonfire we built earlier in the day, as well as the mulled cider and apple juice (both made from local apples harvested and juiced by the Bewdley Apple Cooperative volunteers, part of the Community Land Trust) all helped to ward off the cold. And the hearty singing of the Worcestershire Wassail Song, actually a home made variant of the well known Gloucester version, also played a part.
Wassailing has undergone a revival in recent years. No doubt this is linked with the growing number of community orchards, inspired by the work to promote the value and distinctiveness of old orchards and fruit varieties carried out by the conservation/arts charity Common Ground. According to the folklorist Ralph Whitlock the ceremony almost died out completely in the 1970s. Nowadays, it seems that almost every town or village in areas with orchards has its own event, even Ambridge! While we chose to hold the St George’s wassail on Sunday 17th January, Twelfth Day in the old Julian calendar. They usually take place shortly after Christmas around Twelfth Night.
This year, just down the road at Stroud in Gloucestershire, the community has really gone to town with their wassail ceremony. They organised a weekend of activities starting with a symposium on midwinter festivals, continuing with workshops on ‘raggy coat’ making, mummers and morris groups, and wassail songs, and culminating in an evening of ‘mid-winter merrymaking’ with musicians and dancers on the Saturday.
By comparison with Stroud, ours was a relatively low key affair. The children who came made crowns with leaves and other bits and bobs. Ricky, our Master of Ceremony and stalwart of the Apple Cooperative, wore an impressive wassail hat of his own creation. Out in the orchard we sang the wassail song, doused some trees with last year’s cider, made a racket to scare away the evil spirits and hung toast from the branches to attract good ones. And we were joined by some wonderful musicians, Rachel on violin, Lindsay on melodeon and Dave on guitar, who played on valiantly despite the bitter cold.
Festivities such as these are wonderful ways of reconnecting people with the rhythms of the natural world and ancient cultural traditions. We’re not aware that the original orchard at St George’s farm ever hosted such activities but we hope the wassailing of the new orchard here will become an annual event.