In many orchards in the UK, this is Apple Wassail season!
Until I became a cider enthusiast (a nice way to put it…) I didn’t really know anything about wassail. I thought it was basically just going caroling at Christmas time, but more British? But, as a former budding anthropologist, I dug deeper and discovered a very interesting tradition.
In the cider orchards in England, wassail is a ceremony that dates back to as early as the 1500s. While the practice does vary, wassail involves singing and drinking to the health of the orchard. The rituals serve to wake up the cider apple trees and scare away evil spirits, which ensures a good harvest in the coming year.
Many wassails have a King and Queen that lead the procession and the singing as they wander between trees and between orchards. They would take their wassail bowl and bless the trees by offering cider to their roots; it is important to offer cider to the oldest apple tree as the source of fertility in the orchard. The wassail Queen is often lifted into the boughs to place slices of bread soaked in cider in the branches. After this there may be singing, incantations, yelling, or various other noise making to wake the trees.
This lovely footage from 1979 gives a great glimpse into this fun tradition:
To be clear (and cheeky), this is a ritual and not necessarily required care for your apple trees.
Last year, we attempted to participate in this tradition with our own wassail.
We dressed up like weirdos, hung the toast, sang some songs, yelled and just generally scared our neighbours. The oldest tree in our yard is only 5 years old so that ruins the drama a bit…
Our very young wassail Queen was not totally enthusiastic about the production, while our wassail King fully embodied the role.
The birds did seem to love the influx of toast in the middle of winter.
However, there was a bit of trepidation on our part, because in our prairie climate, you DO NOT want to be waking up the trees at the end of January; we’ve still got several more months of winter!
While we love the tradition of wassail, we want to adapt it to our prairie culture and northern climate. Do we move the celebration closer to spring? Or is it nice to have a celebration in the dark days of January? Are there local traditions we can incorporate?
We are going to host a wassail again this year and we would love your input and ideas! What does a “Prairie Wassail” look like? Let us know in the comments.