Winter Wassail

And so the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day is imminently upon us once again. It’s passing has become relatively innocuous in this part of the world, except if you’re a pagan or morris dancer, but in some small pockets of the Southern Hemisphere it holds greater significance. In New Zealand, where I have been living for the last couple of years, Christmas is in the height of the summer, at the start of the kid’s holidays, in fact. As fun as it is to spend Christmas morning on the beach before heading home for a bbq, one isn’t really filled with festive spirit or inclined to stuff their faces full of turkey as it’s too bloody hot and sunny (*sound of bleeding hearts*).
wassail 1 No shotguns were needed to awaken the trees - just The Ciderologist's booming voice
The movement of Christmas to summer also means there is no mid-winter holiday or celebration to act as a catalyst to bring family together, shelter from the cold and dark and consume copious amounts of fatty food. The winters in the Nelson region of New Zealand are typically, dry and sunny, but cool. The region goes into hibernation during this time and doesn’t really wake up again until October, when spring is in full flow and the tourists return in their camper vans. This leaves scant opportunities to hook onto for a bit of wintery tomfoolery. I’m not a raving Republican, but the public holiday held in NZ on the 1st June, for the Queen’s Birthday (I can hear someone spluttering on their cider in disgust that the Motherland doesn’t get this holiday), doesn’t really invoke the celebration spirit. So that leaves good old 21st June, which, of course, down under is the Winter Solstice. So, to stave off cabin fever and to evoke the spirit of rebirth and renewal associated with this fabled date, on last year’s 21st June, we decided to stage our own unique, multi-denominational winter celebration . To replace absent family members, we were descended upon by our friends, an eclectic, multi-national contingent from the Northern Hemisphere including 3 Brits, 2 Germans, 1 Belgian, a French guy and a Japansese chap. Amongst the group were 2 cheese makers, a wine maker, a brewer and an (ex) cider maker. So you could say we ate and drank well. In fact, (hyperbole alert), we think there was no group of people in the whole of NZ that evening consuming such locally-sourced, fresh and tasty produce. It was bloody lush, I tell thee.
wassail1 Just a word on Health & Safety before we start....
But we didn’t just want to imbibe, we wanted to make history. You see, the other date associated with mid-winter is that of Twelfth Night (January 6th), synonymous with Epiphany and the end of Christmas festivities, but also entrenched in pre-existing pagan festivities. Most crucially (well, for me and other cider fanatics), is that the ancient custom of the Wassail traditionally takes place on Twelfth Night. For those of you unaccustomed to the Wassail, it is essentially the blessing of an apple orchard to ensure a bountiful crop the forthcoming harvest, and is particularly strongly practiced in the cider heartlands of the west and South West of England. It harks back to the days when folk didn’t know why they had good a good crop one year and bad the next, so thought it best to appeal to Pomona, the apple goddess, to be lenient. Wassail is an Old English world, meaning ‘be whole’, or literally, ‘good health’; today we would use ‘cheers’ instead. Every region, village and farm has its own interpretation of the Wassail but they all tend to incorporate some key elements. These include: a flaming torch procession through the orchard, culminating in lighting 12 bonfires around the oldest tree; singing a Wassail song all together; hanging cider soaked bread onto the tree and everyone sharing a sip of cider from a special Wassail bowl.
Multi-national-demoninational-pagan-winteryness Multi-national-demoninational-pagan-winteryness
To my knowledge a Wassail had never been held in New Zealand before, and, what with it being 21st June, we took our cue to make history and conduct our own. We duly lit the flaming torches and headed into the paddock next to our house to seek out the 5 little apple trees tucked in the corner. The procession was led by me (moustache dialled up to 11 and tapping into spirit of my Great Great Grandad Baglin) and we duly sang to the trees, placed cider soaked (artisanal sourdough) bread onto the branches of the trees, and shared cider from the traditional wassail bowl that had been shipped over from the UK. It was truly magical to share this tradition with new friends, completely unaccustomed to this archaic piece of English tradition. Was this the first wassail ever in NZ? We’re not sure, but it was pretty bloody good fun. As a perfect reflection of the intertwining cultures that this area of NZ seems to cultivate, Yas, the Japanese guy, made-up and played a song on his traditional, hand-made Moroccan sintir about this old, English tradition. It was simply called ‘Wasssssssaaaaayyyy’. Sweet as.
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