On my first walk in these snowy Catskill woods, I wandered by an Apple tree. And some never-ripened fruit hung mummified by the cold, turning the skin to a dusky red. Snow capped their tops and they looked so similar to Christmas tree ornaments that I took a photo and wondered if maybe such was the origin of the round baubles we decorate our trees with these days.
Thoreau writes of all manner and stages of Apples you might chance to find in a wood. This is chronicled in his work “Wild Apples” which I read a few years back and really enjoyed for the slice of time and sensibilities it bites into.
A fellow tromper of woods and wonderer of what came before his time, Thoreau shares some insights on the importance of Apples to early settlers and Europeans, reaching all the way back to the Greeks. Thinking of the Christmas decorations these apples remind me of, I’ll share this bit of what he conveyed about some European traditions around Apples, Christmas, and the new year in England. Who doesn’t want to learn about “apple-howling” and “wassailing a tree”?!
On Christmas eve the farmers and their men in Devonshire take a large bowl of cider, with a toast in it, and carrying it in state to the orchard, they salute the apple-trees with much ceremony, in order to make them bear well the next season.” This salutation consists in “throwing some of the cider about the roots of the tree, placing bits of the toast on the branches,” and then, “encircling one of the best bearing trees in the orchard, they drink the following toast three several times:
‘Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Bushel, bushel, sacks-full!
And my pockets full, too! Hurra!’
Also what was called “apple-howling” used to be practised in various counties of England on New-Year’s eve. A troop of boys visited the different orchards, and, encircling the apple-trees, repeated the following words:
‘Stand fast, root! bear well, top
Pray God send us a good howling crop:
Every twig, apples big;
Every bow, apples enow!’
They then shout in chorus, one of the boys accompanying them on a cow’s horn. During this ceremony they rap the trees with their sticks. This is called ‘wassailing’ the trees, and is thought by some to be ‘a relic of the heathen sacrifice to Pomona.’
‘Wassaile the trees that they may beare
You many a plum and many a peare;
For more or less fruits they will bring
As you so give them wassailing.’
Perhaps it’s time we got this tradition back… at least as an excuse to drink cider and together and talk to trees. Two of my favorite pastimes indeed!