On a dark January night at the time of the new moon I arrived at an icy parking lot with my tin pan and wooden spoon, little knowing what was awaiting me.
I joined 50 shadowy figures wreathed in black flowing clothing, black painted faces and amazing feathered flowered headgear. Every time they moved sweet tinkling bells sang out. I was attending the Hemlock Morris Dancers’ 2015 Winter Wassail Celebration. Morris dancing is ancient British folk dancing, involving bell-adorned legs, flower-adorned clothing, and music to dance by. Its history reaches back so far that it could be prehistoric. (That old?? – oh how my historically young American heart swoons!)
Once we all assembled, recorders piped us up the hill to the traditional Wassail song, and when we reached an open space, the dancing began. With the clack of sticks, the stomp of feet, the forming, re-forming, and back again in a swirl and a whirl, the dancing bells kept time to the bouncey tunes of the accordion. The cold ground responded by releasing the sweet scent of earth, giving hope for spring growth at this time when the clenched fist of winter holds tight.
Then higher yet, the procession accompanied by flaming torches, the path lit by tiny candles, up to the top of the ancient hill fort (could this hill be as early as 600BC? More American gasping swoons!) to an old orchard, round an old apple tree, where blazing fires warmed and lit the area. Here we processed in a circle, banging pots with wooden spoons “to awaken the trees from their slumber”. I shouted and banged with the best of them! There’s something about being with strangers in almost pitch blackness that frees the soul to let rip! The King and Queen were adorned with pendants of golden nuts. The Queen poured homemade cider at the base of the apple tree, while the King chanted:
- Old Apple Tree, awake and grow – take nourishment from the earth below
- Old Apple Tree, we anoint thine root – Great Bearer of our Autumn fruit
- Old Apple Tree may your blossoms fall – then grow your apples for one and all
- Old Apple Tree, to you good cheer – bring forth your fruit for us this year
With much jollity we then circled the tree again, this time pretending to carry heavy baskets of fruit, so that the tree would get the hint about what it was supposed to do this year.
Then some of the black shapes separated out as people, and stood quietly together asking a blessing on the orchard. We hung toast on tree branches to attract the good spirits (in the form of robins). Formal ceremonies over, we huddled around the food table for warmed apple juice and pies, as the laughter and conversation rose and fell, already blessed by the bare dark shapes of the fruit trees.
I was lucky enough to stand near Queen Lisa, “We love to dance and rekindle those things that connect us with our sense of place, the environment and each other, “ she said. “Every time we perform, we’re delivering Folklore and hopefully adding something to the wonderfully rich heritage that will outlast us all.”
What more needs to be said?
It’s an old Old English term that means “Be Hale” (healthy). How much deeper, more meaningful, more historic, more truly British it is than “Cheers”!
Recipes abound. Here’s my choice from The Twelve Days of Christmas Cookbook by Suzanne Huntley.
Bake 6 small tart apples, cored and with a horizontal cut around the middle (to keep them from exploding) until soft. Combine 8 ozs (1 cup) brown sugar with 16 ozs ale. Add 2-3 whole cloves, thin strips of peel from one lemon, and 1 teaspoon each ground ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Add 32 ozs more ale, and 16 ozs Malaga wine or sherry. Heat but do not boil. (I usually keep it in a slow cooker. ) A good way to serve wassail is to put the baked apple in a mug, ladle the hot spiced ale and wine over it. After several ladlings, eat the apple with a spoon. Serves 6 wassailers.
I’ve just got to give credit to the amazing event organisers: The Mowsbury Hill Fort, Friends of Putnoe Wood, and the Hemlock Morris Dancers. Nice one, Lads and Lasses. A night I will long remember!