Wassailing the Orchard

There must be thousands of ways and reasons to light up the long dark nights of winter. In the western islands of Europe, where most of my ancestors hail from, they lit bonfires in the orchards and wassailed the trees. Wassail comes from the Old English meaning “to be hale” or “be whole”. The islanders toasted the health of the trees and asked for an abundance of next year’s crop.

Unfortunately, my ancestors didn’t do a good job of keeping this tradition alive when they came to America several centuries ago. But why should that stop us? Wassailing is too much fun to lose in the dim recesses of our ancestral past. How does one go about reviving a vague agricultural tradition? Well, there’s quite a discussion about wassailing on the web. We are not alone! It’s ironic and encouraging how well modern technology works to preserve archaic practices.

So, we cobbled together a wassailing ceremony to bless our little orchard of apples and apricots here in the high desert. We lit a fire, ate popcorn, drank hot spiced cider and shared it with the tree roots. Each person thought of a blessing or a wish as they visited each tree and tied a piece of yarn to a branch. We sang wassailing songs, and made noise to drive away any bad spirits. Finally, our youngest family member climbed the strongest tree and left a piece of toast dipped in cider high up in the crown. Afterwards, we huddled around the fire as the cold night settled around us. No one wanted to go inside. We couldn’t stop watching the sparks drifting up toward the crisp stars.

Next morning, I crossed the frosty grass to admire the trees festooned with scraps of yarn — the cheery affirmation of our relationship. We take care of the trees, they take care of us. I thought about how every bright strand secured a wish. The orchard will glow with our benedictions until spring birds take the faded yarn to build their nests.