Twelfth Night Wassail

5th January

This evening I held my annual Twelfth Night Wassail – to thank the orchards for their fruits and to mark the end of Yuletide. This is a lot nicer than just taking down the decorations, as we are meant to do by the 6th (Epiphany). When so many Christmas trees lie discarded by the roadside, and the pavements are heaped with blackbags destined for landfill sites I think it is more important than ever to thank the Earth, rather than take from it. Certainly, the credit crunch has made people more circumspect in their consumerism although the impact upon the environment of Christmas was probably just as devastating. Still, rather than get all preachy about it, I think it is far more positive just to thank the Earth, and that’s literally what we do at my wassail – braving the freezing temperatures to gather round my apple tree at the bottom of the garden and wassailing it, that is toasting its health. I ushered my guests out into the darkness, equipped with the necessary wassailing regalia. I got the fire going dramatically with a little help from a petrol can – not ideal, but it was a freezing night. I asked people to imagine what dreams they wanted to bring through this year and to visualise them as apples on the branches. Then, taking up my old blackthorn shelaghley (formed from a Gloucestershire wodwose) with its gold nob, I rapped the trunk of the tree chosen to be our Apple Tree Man. I asked my guests to call out, ‘Wake up, wake up, Apple Tree Man!’ three times. Then I poured a whole bottle of ‘Wurzel Me’ Somerset cider onto the roots. Next we toasted the tree, literally, with triangles of toasted bread dipped in the steaming wassail bowl impaled on the bare branches of the tree. These offerings were to thank the tree for its generous bounty and to welcome in the ‘good spirits’, ie the birds. They had a feast too! To finish our ceremony, we scared away any ‘bad spirits’ with loud noises – using party poppers instead of the customary shotguns, the weapon of choice in some Somerset orchards (Carhampton being the most famous on 17th January, Old Twelfth Night )! My work done, I asked Richard to lead us in a couple of wassail songs. It was so dark it was hard to see the words, and the temperature was dropping as the fire peetered out, but we valiantly carried on carolling. I performed Song of Wandering Aengus in the interlude, and then we gratefully decamped inside, where we carried on the circle with more singing, poetry and merriment, fuelled by more mulled cider, baked pomme de terre (apples of the earth: potatoes!); and numerous other nibbles: the last of the Yuletide feasting. Chrissy Derbyshire, a budding bard over from Cardiff, was eventually persuaded to sing – and what a lovely voice she had, offering something from Blackmore’s Nights repertoire, before she had to dash to catch her train. Mairead led us in some rounds. Richard read out Rose Flint’s specially commissioned Wassail poem. Peter Please offered a couple of excellent tales (the one about a wounded bird guiding a friend of his to its trapped mate was especially enthralling) before generously gifting me a copy of his new book Clattinger: an alphabet of signs from nature – a beautiful tome made with elven craft. Sheila Broun, arriving late, sang a haunting song. Steven Isaac read out his poem about birch trees from Writing the Land, and I recited the  poem ‘Wheel of the Rose’, fortunately remembering the words despite the intake of mulled cider and beer! The conversation flowed, but I was flagging after a sociable few days and was relieved when most departed by midnight. I felt I had done my ‘bit’ for the season – three gatherings around my place, and was looking forward to taking down the decorations the following day and getting stuck back into things. Time to strip away the frippery and knuckle down to some work. Yet my heart and my hearth had been warmed by friendship, merriment and awen.


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