Wassail, wassail, all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee
I knew it was a mistake the moment I scrambled on to the picnic table, but there was nothing I could do but carry on with blessing the orchard and hope – earnestly – that I didn’t slide off and in or rather on to the crowd. The months of rain and murk had turned the whole top of the table into a green skating rink and I perched there, holding a lantern in one hand and my brief script in the other, sandwiched between two empty cider kegs and facing a sea of expectant revellers, inexperienced in the etiquette of crowd surfing – as am I. It was the realization of my grim situation that brought on an attack of Elvis leg worse than anything I ever experienced while I was climbing. I’ve written before that I’ve arranged to be buried in Littleton, but I hadn’t thought of ending my ministry in such a spectacular fashion. As it was I missed half of the first line, mispronounced ‘miasma’ and left the last two lines out altogether rather than push my luck. The Master of the Feast helped me down and I’ve never been so grateful before to sink my feet into some good liquid mud.
The wassail is always fun and, because it’s always in the dead of winter the weather is often pretty awful, although yesterday the rain gave over about an hour before we kicked off, and by the end of the evening we could see the stars – cue for a heavy frost overnight. A couple of years ago we had a crescent moon rising above the orchard; a surprisingly affecting sight. Last night the moon was well below the horizon; still visible early this morning.
The evening begins with traditional songs around an enormous bonfire, during which numbered labels are handed out because the wassail queen is elected by a spinning wheel lottery. Grave suspicions that the lottery is rigged were put to rest last night by the person who made the wheel when he admitted to me that he’d tried to rig it with a magnet behind the arrow but it never seemed to work. Once the Queen is chosen she’s taken to the orchard in her chariot, preceded by the singers and the Green Man. Once she’s there and we’re all assembled around her, we make the most tremendous racket to frighten the spirits away – blank black powder shotgun cartridges are fired into the air with great plumes of flame and smoke; fireworks are set off to drown out the noise of the converging riot police vans and more Littleton Lifesaver is consumed. Then the Queen hangs a piece of toast on one of trees – why not? – and pours cider around the trunk. The Green Man reads a poem and I mount a picnic table – the slippery one – to bless the trees. Then, more wassail songs where new verses are always inserted to make fun of various people, always including me, and we process back to the fire and the mummers play.
The best thing of all is that I get to chat to all my old friends in the village – provided I can recognise them under all their makeup and fairy lights. Every year the costumes seem to get more and more exotic. Of course it’s all a nod to tradition but the local farmers all used to make cider – in fact it formed part of a labourer’s wages. The larger farms could get through thousands of gallons a year and if you know where to look there are still cider producers to be found. The Cider Club, which runs the wassail is a relatively new institution that took over the redundant cider orchard and which now boasts a stainless steel bulk tank and refrains from calling its fruits ‘artisan’ for which I applaud them. If you ask me what it tastes like I wouldn’t know because I never drink it but I’ve used it for cooking where it works very well. This year the Cider club members dressed themselves in sackcloth, presumably because however successfully we drive out the demons from the orchard they always come back in the cider!
So it was a marvellous evening and my only remaining clerical duty of the year. This afternoon Madame and me attended a workshop on sphagnum moss identification – we certainly know how to live the life – as my son rather acidly pointed out.