Wishing you joy and Wassail (December 15 newsletter)

Imagine gathering around an apple tree at night. The trees are wet and starred with early snow. You stand around a bonfire, and people are singing under the full moon …

On Saturday afternoon, Wild Soul River will be going Wassailing around the neighborhood. Today the tradition has evolved into caroling, and they are joining with Deb Burns, who has led singing around the solstice for years — but they are looking to a tradition more than 1500 years old.

Its roots seem to be hard to find. I’d heard of wassailing as a winter holiday frolic, maybe medieval or renaissance and maybe later. In England, people would go around to wealthy houses, singing and asking for generosity at the holidays — ‘an apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry.’

But much farther back, wassailing began as singing to the trees. At Twelfth Night, late in the celebrations around Christmas and Yule and the new year, people would bring a hot drink in a procession, singing and playing music in the dark, and they would carry torches and light bonfires, and they would sing to the spirits of the trees for a good year.

A glass of white wine glows in firelight. Creative Commons courtesy photo

A glass of white wine glows in firelight. Creative Commons courtesy photo

The celebration seems to go back, in England, long before the earliest Christian times, before the Anglo Saxons, before the Romans, and to have persisted through them all. Samuel Johnson, among others, recalls a Celtic tradition, la mas ubhal, the celebration of apples. He sets it on November 1, near Halloween and at the end of the apple harvest, and others set it in late January or early February, when the groundhog looks for a shadow and the Hebrew calendar celebrates Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees — when the year turns toward spring.

One way or another, it’s a holiday that looks out from the cold toward rebirth. People would come out at night and gather around orchards to ask the apples for a good crop in the new year. And they would share a bowl of hot spiced ale or cider with the spirits of the trees, or pour cider over the roots or over the branches to give it to them.

They would share the drink with each other too. From giving cider back to the trees, they evolved recipes, rich and sweet. If they could afford it, they might add sugar or whipped eggs or cream. So wassail became the sharing, and the celebration, and the name for the drink. The word wassail was a drinking toast, the old English wes hail, good health, and the drink could be like eggnog, or more often like the mulled cider we heat over the stove or the wood stove.

I remember the taste of cider set to heat in a pot on the stones around a fire. On a crisp, cold weekend in apple season, the musicians from the contradance band I played with in college would get together in a hay barn in Vermont. We would camp in the barn and in the fields for three days, and we would press cider and play for a barn dance.

Those days came with a lift. It was the rush of a reunion. People would be cooking together companionably over the fire or sitting in corners with their fiddles and pennywhistles. Some of us could play tunes from memory or by ear, and some brought music to share, and we would improvise harmonies to a reel or try out an Argentine tango …

It’s a high, dancing with friends, and playing music for people who are dancing. We would play until our hands got cold and dance to warm up — once, eight of us formed a set in the dance together and played Calliope House as we danced. And then we stayed up late in the hay barn, singing together. We walked through the fields at night, and a friend showed me the stars in Delphinus, the constellation of the dolphin.

This week, a friend asked me how I would imagine or tend a garden for sound or scent, for magic or joy. Maybe I should walk into my garden on a winter night and play music to dance to.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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