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

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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 2015.

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

WASSAIL 2015

January 5th – January 17th, 2015

We encourage you to Wassail, honor the orchard and celebrate the apple.

Wassail in the orchard, at your favorite cider-serving establishment, or where ever Twelfth Night week finds you.

Join us and raise a glass of cider – toast the apple & the orchard.

WASSAIL 2015 

The Wassailing

Highlights from

WASSAIL 2014

January 5th – January 17th, 2014*

UNITED STATES:

CA: Tilted Shed Ciderworks Orchard Wassail on Old Twelfth Night  January 17, 2014 www.tiltedshed.com

MO: Wassailing the Apple Trees and Dinner at Powell Gardens – January 18, 2014. www.powellgardens.org/wassailing

NY: Redbyrd Orchard Cider – January 17, 2014. redbyrdorchardcider.com

NY: Wassail daily at The Drink with their Wassail cup or bowl thedrinkbrooklyn.com

OR: Finn River Cidery Winter Wassail –  January 18, 2014. www.finnriver.com

VT: Champlain Orchards – January 18, 2014.  www.champlainorchards.com

CANADA:

BC: Sea Cider Winter Wassail Celebration – January 19, 2014 seacider.ca

The Wassail (Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

OUR WASSAIL POSTS:

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

Come All Ye Cider Drinkers and Join In The Wassail!

A Bit About Wassailing From the National Association of Cider Makers

IT BEGINS. 13 Days Of Wassailing 2014

These Days Of Wassailing

The Pagan Rite WASSAIL! Brown, Bradshaw and World’s Best Ciders.

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

Wassail Traditions: The 5 Key Elements.

Old Apple Tree, We’ll WASSAIL Thee!

Rackham Lady's Apple

 WASSAIL RESOURCES & LINKS: LEARN MORE ABOUT ORCHARD WASSAILING:

Wassailing Through History from the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, USA

About Wassailing from the National Association of Cider Makers, United Kingdom

Cider: It’s Time for Wassail by Maria Kennedy of Cider With Maria for Twice Cooked

Wassail: An Unexpected Revival by Maria Kennedy of Cider With Maria

Wassail: Some Historical Reports and their Contexts by Maria Kennedy of Cider With Maria

Wassail Story From The Radio Program – Living on Earth via the blog Cider With Maria

The Foodie Bugle Talks Wassail: Here’s To Thee Old Apple Tree

Rackham-Winter Trees

A SELECTION OF WASSAIL RECIPES:

Lambswool (Wassail) Recipe (with history notes) for a modern kitchen from RecipeWise recipewise.co.uk

Traditional Lambswool Recipes from early sources collected by RecipeWise recipewise.co.uk

Holiday drinks: Here we come a-wassailing at American Food Roots with a recipe and video from Alton Brown (with eggs, ale and Madeira)

How To Make PDTs Winter Wassail with Hudson Valley Cider from Breezy Hill Orchard via Serious Eats

From PUNCH Drink: A Recipe For Wassail: punchdrink.com

The Churchill’s Jenn Dowds shared this Wassail recipe with Rosie Schaap for The New York Times.

Rackham Pomona

*The month of January 2014 was dedicated to Wassail at United States of Cider.

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From The “New, Useful and Entertaining” Thomas’ The Farmer’s Almanac. Edition No. 1. Calendars for December, 1793:

1793 of Almanck cover

The first edition, published by Robert B. Thomas in 1792, (for the year 1793) was “declared new, useful and entertaining” and sold for six pence.

Calendar for December 1793:

“Put your sleds and sleighs in order. Complete your thrashing. Visit your barns often. See that your cellars are well stored with good cider, that wholesome and cheering liquor, which is the product of your own farms: No man is to be pitied, that cannot enjoy himself or his friend, over a pot of good cider, the product of his own country, and perhaps his own farm which suits both his constitution and his pocket much better than West-India spirit.”

sources & resources:

website: www.almanac.com

link to free google ebook compilation:  The Old Farmer and His Almanack: Being Some Observations on Life and Manners in Vew England a Hundred Years Ago, Suggested by Reading the Earlier Numbers of Mr. Robert. B. Thomas’s Farmer’s Almanack, Together with Extracts Curious, Instructive, and Entertaining, as Well as a Variety of Miscellaneous Matter

Harvard University Press, 1920
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On Thanksgiving Traditions In The Colony of New Haven.

Colliers Thanksgiving Cover 1901

“Thanksgiving was celebrated with the greatest profusion. For three days previous all was bustle and preparation: the stalled ox was killed, – turkeys, hens, and geese innumerable shared the fate of Charles the first, – a load of the best walnut wood was drawn for the thanksgiving fires, a barrel of the best cider was chosen, the best pumpkins were selected for pies, (to supply the place of minced,)* and strong water was provided in moderation to assist the inspiration of the joyful occasion.”

* “It has been said that minced pies were proscribed from the bill of fare of the Puritans because they were customarily made by the Episcopalians on Christmas.”

Page: 191

From: History of the colony of New Haven: before and after the union with Connecticut. Containing a particular description of the towns which composed that government, viz., New Haven, Milford, Guilford, Branford, Stamford, & Southold, L. I., with a notice of the towns which have been set off from “the original six.” 

Author: Edward Rodolphus Lambert Publisher: Hitchcock & Stafford, 1838 – Branford (Conn.)

via: google ebook

Image: Creator(s): Penfield, Edward, 1866-1925, artist. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZC4-1206 (color film copy transparency)

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