Alicia Marchant, The University of Tasmania
Give me one kiss in apple-blossom
Give me one wish, and I’d be wassailing
In the orchard, my English rose
(Kate Bush, Oh England, My Lionheart)
After dark on a Saturday night in the Huon Valley in southern Tasmania, a group of around 50 people, loud both in noise and in colour, parade through the centre of an enormous, enthralled crowd. The Morris parading group are dressed in their traditional bells and tatters, some with flowers and plant materials (birch sticks and leaves), top hats and tails, and brightly painted faces. Some are dressed in furs with pagan-styled animal masks, including wolves and bears, and there is one white horse. With banners, lanterns and flaming torches the group parades through the crowd, banging loudly on pots and pans, finally stopping at an orchard of apple trees. It is here that the Jack of the Green, a Green Man wearing a crown of Ivy, announces to the crowd: ‘our job tonight is to give [the] gift of good health to the apple trees’. In the exact same spot the year previously, the same Jack of the Green asked the crowd: ‘Will the apple tree fruit for us again this year? We don’t know. We have to do things to get it in our favour … Without you the apple trees won’t bloom and blossom, and they won’t bear fruit’.
Wassailing is a multisensory, dramatic performance with the added bonus of cider consumption; it is extremely good fun. Each element of the wassail ritual is performed for a very specific purpose: to awaken the apple trees and encourage growth, and to scare away the evil spirits that could lurk and do damage to the precious fruit. The performative acts of the wassail generate particular affective states, including good feelings and emotions associated with seasons and renewal, celebration and revelry, as well as community. But, it is also a practice steeped in anxiety and fear that the apples may not thrive, and so too the community connected to, and reliant upon, them.
The wassail performed in the Huon has traceable genealogies of practice: orchard wassailing has its origins in the early modern era (if not before) in the west counties of the British Isles, particularly Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Dorset, Somerset and Devon, but also in Kent. The earliest recorded apple wassail was at Fordwich in Kent in 1585, in which a group of young men are reported to have moved between orchards for a reward. As antiquarian John Aubrey records in 1686, on Old Twelfth Night in Somersetshire men ‘goe with their Wassell-bowl into the orchard and goe about the trees to bless them and putt a piece of tost upon the roots in order to [bless] it’. However, throughout the early modern era wassailing was not exclusively associated with apples, but was performed in a range of fruit orchards, as Robert Henrick instructs in 1648:
Wassaile the Trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum, and many a Peare.
Apples and cider production came to be more exclusively associated with wassailing in subsequent eras, and today are its primary objects.
In Tasmania, the wassailing of the apple trees is one of the two main events of the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest, the other being the burning of a five-metre-tall Wicker Man, on the preceding night. It is the only public performance of a wassail in Australia. The Fest is held over a weekend in mid-July, which this year fell between 15 and 17 July. The timing of the wassail is paramount in the cycle of the apple season. As John Aubrey records in 1686, it was performed traditionally on Old Twelfth Night, which in the northern hemisphere falls on 17 January, after the Winter Solstice. It is at this point that the dormant winter apple trees start to rejuvenate for the next cycle, culminating in the production of apples in late summer and autumn. The Tasmanian wassail is thus synchronised to fall on Old Twelfth Night, but is translated into a southern hemisphere seasonal setting.
While there are many regional variations and changes in focus over the years, there are several core ritual elements to the practice of wassailing: the processional movement of a group to an apple tree; the singing of a wassailing song; the banging of pots and pans; the drinking and pouring of cider onto the roots of an apple tree; shooting guns through the top branches; and finally the placing of toast in the branches or on the roots of the apple tree. All of these core elements were performed at the Huon Valley wassail with, for instance, toast being placed in the apple trees for the little birds, ‘the guardians of the apple trees’, and the tipping of cider onto the roots of the apple tree in a symbolic act of continuity; the old cider is absorbed into the new apples.
Wassailing is not only a performance with a heritage of practice, but is also a performance of heritage; here, heritage is produced through affective, embodied and experiential performances of individual and community acts of remembering, feeling, reminiscing, and recalling and engaging with a ritual and a space. The wassailers perform and engage with traditions of the past: they create and wear historically inspired costumes and paint their faces according to custom. The parading of the group through a designated space towards an apple tree recalls the ritual movements practiced by wassailers in the past. It is a movement that has many parallels with other sacrificial and ritual contexts; moving together as a crowd generates a sense of undertaking together a special and mysterious activity, working towards a goal as a united group. During the wassail, the crowd is not merely a witness or observer to the wassailing ritual, but is a crucial participant; the crowd follows behind the wassail performers as they pass, creating a surging sea of people. All who attend are encouraged to wear costumes and, importantly, everyone is charged with the task of creating as much noise as possible through the banging of pots and pans and shouting out ‘wassail’ (derived from the Anglo Saxon term ‘wes hal’, meaning ‘good health’ or ‘be whole’), and singing the traditional wassailing song as loudly as possible, together:
Old Apple tree,
We’ll wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear.
The Lord does know where we shall be
To be merry another year.
To blow well and to bear well,
And so merry let us be.
Let every man drink up his cup
And health to the old apple tree.
(Chant shouted to wake up the tree)
Old apple tree, we wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hat’s full, cap’s full
And a little heap
Under the stairs
Three cheers to the old Apple Tree!
(shotgun shots, bang pots and pans and lots of noise!)
This song has to be sung with gusto to fulfil its purpose of awakening the trees; it is our community duty, we are told, since ‘without you the apple trees won’t bloom and blossom’. The recital of the wassailing song and the emotional fervour in its performance recalls a heritage of sound, a historical soundscape performed in apple orchards over the centuries.
The emotional processes and practices, the actions and utterances, are critical to the production of heritage. The communal recital of the wassailing song (amongst other ritual elements) has the effect of creating affective connections both to the apples (for whose care we are responsible) and to others singing along: the grouped ‘us’ and ‘we’ of the song. These binding feelings of community and unity are centred upon the yearly story of the apple tree and its wassailing, which speaks to inescapable rhythms of human life, of death, decay and seasonal renewal.
As a dynamic performance, what the wassail provides is a simulacrum to evoke feelings; it produces affective connections not only to others immediately present but also to the past, to the imagined prior generations who performed this same ritual and who experienced similar feelings. This performance provides a point of connection and familiarity between bodies and emotions of the past and of today; it is easy to imagine people singing the wassailing song in the past with as much fervour and emotion as at the Huon Wassail.
It is worth asking, however, given that the wassail is undoubtedly a very British tradition and practice, what sort of ‘past’ is recalled when it is performed in the Huon Valley? What emotional work does the wassail performance do within a Tasmanian context? The prevailing aesthetic of the Huon Mid-Winter Fest and the wassail specifically is, in a broad sense, ‘gothic’: as elsewhere, this is a type of medievalism, filtered through Victorian cultural ideas. This is a very rural and folk sort of medievalism, of carnival pageants with happy peasants full of cider. It is an aesthetic that would not be out of place in an episode of Midsomer Murders. The specifically ‘Tasmanian gothic’ is a heady mix of the quirky, the macabre, the pagan and the ‘dark’ that comes with the history of convictism and colonisation that have made Van Diemen’s Land / Tasmania notorious in the global historical imagination, and continues to resonate in Tasmania’s present, in popular culture, visual art and literature.
But what the wassailing performance also recalls is a time when the Tasmanian apple was king: the Huon Valley was a leading producer of apples in the 1950s and 60s, exporting more than six million boxes of apples to European markets per year. However, in 1973 the industry went pear-shaped, sent into turmoil because England joined the common market. The result was the pulling up of thousands of apple trees, and the demise of many orchards in the Huon Valley. It is not without irony, then, that a British historical tradition is being used to help revive the popularity of apple and cider production in the Huon Valley. In addition to the yearly, natural renewal that the wassail ostensibly promotes and celebrates, it also implicitly celebrates the recent revival of the region itself. Until its recent reinvention, the venue, Willie Smith’s, was billed as an ‘apple museum’. It still has elements of its museum past in its current form (old farm equipment, samples of apple varieties), and the major event of its year, the Mid-Winter Fest, enacts and imagines a past that includes, but stretches back past, the apple-farming heritage of the Huon. It is at once a celebration of the particular history and qualities of the Huon and of an imagined, British heritage.
For participants, the Huon Wassail presents an intriguing combination of make-believe and seriousness. In the light of the torches, surrounded by masked figures, you could almost believe that this ritual will scare away evil spirits and ensure a good crop. Emotions are central to this performance, and are most certainly aided by the drinking of mulled cider and wine heavy with spices, welcome sources of warmth in winter. The double vision of the festival is not, though, just a matter of imbibing: it is the overlaying of Britain on Tasmania, of an imagined past on the present, belief on disbelief, and the prospect of an effective ritual on merely enjoyable spectacle. These doublings allow the emotions evoked to be experienced both for themselves and with an aesthetic distancing. In the light of torches and the rhythms of human feet, drums, pots and pans, the incongruities and dualities of this British ritual in Tasmania can unite in an affective performance of heritage.
This research is part of the Affect, Performance and Immersion in Cultural Heritage Research Cluster. Interested researchers are welcome to join. The Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest is an annual festival held in July at Willie Smith’s Cider, Tasmania.
Alicia Marchant is a CHE Associate Investigator (2013, 2014, 2016), and a Research Associate in History at the University of Tasmania. Her work focuses on the history of emotions, heritage, materiality and dark tourism. She completed her PhD at The University of Western Australia in 2012, in which she examined depictions of rebellion in English chronicle narratives written between 1400 and 1580. From 2012 to 2014, she worked as a Research Associate for the Centre, based at The University of Western Australia.
 John Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, London, Satchell, Peyton and Co, 1881, p.40.
 Robert Herrick, Hesperides; or, The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick Esq, 1st edition, 1648 (1 vol.). London: John Williams and Francis Eglesfield, sig. X4.