Merry Christmas everyone! In between rocking around the Christmas tree, cooking Christmas lunch and eating mince pies, we thought we’d share a Christmas post with you. When I was asking around the office for what I should write about it’s fair to say that I got some quite ordinary suggestions (after all, what’s more wildlife-related than The Holly and the Ivy or a Christmas Tree?). I also got some slightly more off the wall ideas – questions such as “could turkeys survive in the wild?” (the answer being “obviously”) – but what I eventually decided to talk about was a wonderful old tradition that’s often only remembered in certain parts of the country: wassailing.
You’ve most probably heard the Christmas carol ‘Here we come a wassailing’, an activity that we would now just call ‘carolling’. That’s one meaning of the word, but there’s also a lovely tradition of wassailing to bless the next year’s apple harvest. This tradition goes back at least to Anglo Saxon times, and occurs on Twelfth Night (5th January), or Old Twelfth Night (17th January). The idea is to awake the apple trees and ward off evil spirits, thereby encouraging a successful autumn harvest. Interestingly, Twelfth Night used to be the key date in the Christmas calendar. It was a day of feasting and revelry where the world was ‘turned upside-down’: a bean and a pea hidden in the food denoted who would be in charge for the day, so the servants sometimes ended up bossing the masters around! However, this was all a bit too anarchic for Queen Victoria, who shifted the focus to Christmas Day and the Christian connotations of the season.
The best part of the wassailing ceremony is that it comes with a traditional drink, the ‘wassail’. Forget the buck’s fizz and mulled wine this Christmas Day, and try your hand at wassail, which can be drunk at any time over the Christmas period and up to Twelfth Night. It’s very similar to mulled cider, with the delicious addition of some baked apples. There are many recipes online, including this one. The wassailers sing to the apple trees, presenting the spirits with a gift – toast that has been soaked in wassail. There’s also traditionally a wassail king and queen who lead the procession.
Although wassailing is more common in the serious cider producing counties further south, we like to honour it here at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. We’re holding our very own wassailing ceremony in the orchard at Brandon Marsh Nature Centre on 11th January, which you can find more info about here. Not that we’re entirely sure that it does much for the apple harvest – we tried making our own cider in 2013 and it was, ummm, not the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted. Then again, that probably has a lot more to do with the fact that we had no idea what we were doing than the apples themselves.
So hopefully we’ve inspired you to try something new, and perhaps even to pay a quick visit to your garden apple trees on January 5th for a sing-song. Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and we hope you’ll come back to hear all about what we get up to in 2015.