On January 6th we observed the old custom of celebrating Twelfth Night – the end of the Christmastide festivities as proclaimed at the Council of Tours in 567 CE. A gathering of friends was held with food, wine, and the traditional Twelfth Night cake with a coin hidden in it. In the old days it would have been a ha’penny piece but sadly they have gone the way of the sovereign and a bright shiny one pence had to do. Our friend Alex found it – fortunately before biting into his portion. There was no crown on hand and the evening was almost over so we fudged tradition just a bit: rather than becoming King of the Revels he was awarded our wishes for a happy and healthy 2018. From our lips – our rather coin – to God’s ears!
Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray the God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big.
Every bough, apples now.
— 19th century Sussex, Surrey
So why bring this up this late in the season? It’s January 17th for heaven’s sake, well after Christmas and eleven days after Twelfth Night! Ah but you see that’s the point! If you go by the old Julian calendar which England (and her colonies I might add) did until Wednesday September 2, 1752 when everything changed by eleven days then I am spot on. At the stroke of midnight that evening the next day became, by act of Parliament, September 14. Up to that time the Twelfth Night after Old Christmas would have been today – January 17.
In the apple growing counties of England it was the tradition to wish good health – waes hael – to the oldest tree in the orchard on the night of the Twelfth Day of Christmastide. Each village and region had their own customs surrounding Orchard Wassailing or Apple Howling. But common to all were the offering of toasted bread and ale or cider to the Apple Tree Man who lived in the oldest tree in the stand. It was thought to guarantee a bountiful crop the following season. Though the first recorded instance of the quaint ceremony appears in 1585, it possibly originated in an old Celtic custom of offering libations to the spirits that dwelt in trees and forests.
Pots and pans would be banged, guns fired into the air to scare away the evils spirits and goblins and often the tree would be thumped with a stout shovel to awaken the Apple Tree Man from his winter slumber. The toast would be hung off the branches for the robins, who were thought to be good spirits. The roots of the tree would be liberally watered with cider from a large jug that had, of course, been passed around. Rhymes, songs, and incantations would exhort the tree to be fruitful and multiply. From some of the rhymes it was suggested that if the harvest was not good it was that oldest tree that would suffer the consequences.
What brought this all to mind was an arrangement Stephen Hatfield did of the traditional Apple Wassail for female chorus that we heard at a Sirens‘ concert just before Christmas. Though it should be noted that originally women would have been excluded from the ceremony in the orchard if not the house party that often followed. I have trouble understanding the spoken lines at the end but fortunately a bit of a search revealed this incantation:
Hatfulls, capfulls, three-bushel bagfulls
Little heaps under the stairs.
Hip hip hooray!
Unfortunately there isn’t a video of the Sirens available but here’s a excellent version by The University of Toronto Women’s Chorus recorded back in 2013.
And for good measure, in an effort to ensure a few good jugs of PEI apple cider, here’s a more “earthy” version by The Watersons, an English folk group known for their close harmony renditions of traditional British songs. I find the sound perhaps a bit contrived in its “Mummerset” dialect but it is close to what would have been heard in Southern England on Twelfth Night.
Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
— South Hams of Devon, 1871
On this day in 1917: The United States pays Denmark $25 million for the Virgin Islands.