Old-Tyme Religion

Run, two, three, jump, slap, run, two, three, jump. I can’t believe that I’m Molly dancing on a January afternoon with total strangers and it’s just over freezing out. And my big brother’s on the side watching me mess up every step. It must be wassail season again. In a festival that always reminds me of The Wicker Man (1973, please!), I visited the 16th annual wassailing of the trees at Terhune Orchards on Sunday. Molly dancers and Morris dancers, or Mummers, from Philadelphia help make this occasion festive. The ceremony of wassailing the trees clearly has deep pagan roots and is influenced in some respects by Christianity. We sing a wassailing hymn (one that many would recognize from Christmas time), say a wassailing prayer, make a loud noise to drive the demons from the trees, dunk bread into a pail of cider and hang it from the trees. Another festivity involves writing a wish on a slip of paper and burning it in the fire. My wish from last year came true—I can’t say what it is here—giving it a success rate better than some prayers.

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Watching this year’s wish rise up in the smoke, I have high hopes for the apples and dreams.

Christianity owes much to various pagan traditions. Often we don’t see it because Christianity (and many religions, actually) tends to absorb former beliefs and practices, “baptizing” them when it can’t expunge them. Pagan gods have often become saints, whether they want to or not. When the Christianity is peeled back there is a very human charm underneath. We worry whether the fruits will return, whether the days will get longer, or whether the cold will ever break. There are powers that exist outside our grasp, and call them Christ or call them spirits, we want them to be on our side.

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Throughout Europe and much of the rest of the Christianized world, the pagan traditions are called “the old religion.” Religions like to claim antiquity as part of authenticity. In fact, the earliest religions were surely shamanistic and very earth based. Revealed religions claimed to supplant much of what people did to ensure the continued regularity of nature. Even though we know the earth is spinning around the sun and that the tilt of its axis makes for seasonal change. I know that whether or not I dip bread into cider and jamb it onto the bare branches, even if I don’t shake the noisemakers to frighten the demons, the apples will grow. But we are all human too, and I’m only too happy to join the Molly dancers if only next summer the apples will come.

Wassailing

It was a nippy 42 degrees with a chill January breeze cutting through the brightly garbed crowd of maybe two-dozen stalwart souls. There were Molly dancers holding hands and skipping in a circle. Smoke from a bonfire caught the breeze as a woman with a painted face sang about the circle of the sun. The whole event had a Wicker Man sort of feeling to it, but participating in an ancient tradition is strangely fulfilling. A basket on the table held pencils and paper on with instructions to write your wish and burn the paper in the bonfire so that “Your message will travel into the cosmos.” The bare apple trees were seasonally pruned and discarded branches littered the ground. It all sounds suitably pagan for a Sunday afternoon in New Jersey.

Having grown up in a rather sheltered small-town environment I never even heard of wassail until planning for my December wedding nearly twenty-five years ago. A low budget affair with the reception in a church basement, my wife decided not to offend Methodist sensibilities by serving wassail, a spiced cider drink generally associated with Christmas. As I learned this midwinter, wassailing has a deep and mysterious ancestry that is a mix of pagan and Christian traditions. One aspect of wassailing is associated with Christmas carols and is based on the tradition of the wealthy sharing with the poor during the holiday season (a practice clearly extinct these days). The second type of wassailing goes back to nature religion and the blessing of the apple trees. It was observed on midwinter, which, before the Gregorian calendar, fell on January 17. At Terhune Orchards the festival fell on the 29th this year.

After watching the Molly dancers and sending our wishes up to the cosmos in the bonfire, one of the orchard proprietors gathered the crowd, now having about doubled to fifty, to sing the Somerset Wassail and then to make noise to drive out the evil spirits. This the crowd did with enthusiasm. We were then asked to recite the wassail prayer, printed on a signpost for all to see. Bread was passed out which we dunked in cider and hung on the naked apple trees. After a final blessing we headed to our car to preserve our own wassail. In England’s apple-growing regions, wassailing the trees is still practiced with a sincerity that marks the deeply mysterious. Some Christian sensibilities, I’m sure would be offended, but this ancient custom, like leaving a tree to stand in the midst of a plowed field to propitiate the spirit of nature, goes profoundly into human consciousness. I, for one, will lift a cup of cider and join the ancient rite to brighten a winter day.