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‘To your health’
We carefully wove our way along a grassy path illuminated by candles suspended from the gnarled branches of the apple trees. It was a magical night. Only the lightest of light breezes brushed our cheeks and caused the glass jars in which the lights were fixed to sway.
Folk music performed by Tim Healey and Ian Giles of The Oxford Waits beckoned us on. We were gathering at the Wolvercote Community Orchard on the twelfth day of Christmas, according to the old Julian calendar that ceased to be in 1582, to resurrect the ancient tradition of wassailing, which goes so far back in time it is impossible to traces origins, though the word itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon Wass hael', meaning to your health'.
First we raised our glasses to the apples, downing a warm glass of fine scrumpy cider brewed by Q Gardens, Milton Hill, whose fine orchard boasts almost as many species of apple trees as the community orchard.
Then, taking pieces of toasted bread, we wove our way through the trees, attaching pieces of toast dunked in the cider to their branches. The toast was all part of the ritual and would doubtless provide winter food for the robins and the many other birds who help control the insects attracted by the sweet juices of the apples.
Then came the ancient practise of pouring sanctified liquid which, in this case, was a bowl of the scrumpy cider around the roots of a chosen tree, having first encircled the tree danced around it several times. This was a way of giving something back to the tree and promoting a good crop of apples for next year.
Next came the cutting of the Wassail cake, a rich spiced fruit cake which contained two extra ingredients, a bean and a pea. Whoever took the slice containing the bean became the uncrowned king for the remainder of the night. His queen was the woman who discovered the pea.
'Rituals such as wassailing used to reinforce a sense of identity, connecting people with tradition and with the community 'immediately around. And of course nature too, with its rhythm of seasons.Tim Healey
More songs followed as we raised our glasses and sang the Devonshire Chant Here's to thee, old apple tree and the Somerset Wassail chorus - For it's your wassail and it's our wassail And it's joy to be you and a jolly wassail!
Then, we all went home, having satisfied what Tim Healey describes as the buried tribesman in us all.
Tim believes that now we are increasingly ruled by global communications, computer technology and plasma screen TV's, we are coming to cherish what is left of our local, seasonal rituals.
"Rituals such as wassailing used to reinforce a sense of identity, connecting people with tradition and with the community immediately around. And of course nature too, with its rhythm of seasons," explained Tim, who pointed out that music obviously plays a key role in these celebrations.
"The interesting thing is, people attending these events are not looking for variety, for new hits. For ritualistic reasons ,festivities often require the same music every year. That is the whole idea actually. There are days in the calendar when things stay the same they are specifically not different."
Tim is fascinated by the fact that there are certain moments in history when people seemed to crave a certain kind of ritual and sought it in their imagination, which he admits is one reason why he is not remotely shy of initiating new traditions himself.
"As director of the Oxford Folk Festival I commissioned a Jack-in-the-Green, an Obby Oss, for the festival because both have featured in festivals through the centuries.
"Oxford, indeed Oxfordshire, is ripe for such celebrations. Where seasonal celebrations do persist, as they do, they are becoming incredibly popular. Think of May Morning on Magdalen Bridge, the Mummers and bell-ringers at Headington Quarry on Boxing Day and further out in the villages you have groups such as Eynsham Morris who dance round the entire village on Boxing day before leading everyone in song at the local pub."
Simon Pipe of Radio Oxford agrees with Tim's sentiments entirely.
"We all spend too much time on computers, we need to interact with people more, and these festivals provide the opportunity for people to come together and form a bond."
Simon is convinced that we needn't worry about making changes to the traditional ceremony our rituals have continued to evolve through the ages.
"The Victorians were constantly adapting them so that they fitted into their idealistic view of Merry England and the pastoral life," he said.
Tim will be taking part in Banbury's Hobby Horse Festival, calling on a custom deeply rooted in ancient cultures when people dressed up in animal skins and carried or wore the heads of animals.
The Hobby Horse festival, which takes place July 1 and 2 this year, is now a popular happening and one which has become firmly etched on Banbury's event's calendar (see page 27 to find out more).
Tim says the time was right. Over the centuries festivals such as this have evolved out of a need to celebrate a particular aspect of life.
To those who say they don't believe in ceremonies he points out that few ignore Christmas.
"Most develop rituals within the Christmas festival which are unique to them and their family.They find something comforting which helps bond the family in such rituals."
Teresa Woodbridge was involved with the replanting of the Wolvercote Community Orchard in 1994, and has watched with delight as the orchard's Apple Day, held anually in October, gone from strength to strength. She says that the revival of the Wassail ceremony epitomises a sense of the past and the present coming together and that strong sense of community within the village that she enjoys so much.
"I didn't know quite what to expect when I walked that little path lit with candles on the night of the Wassail the evening was eccentric, magical, great fun and full of wonderful surprises.
"It was good to attend the first of what will clearly become an annual event," said Teresa, who sees the Wassail evening as a tradition in the making and one which provides a much needed antidote to the technological age that is embracing us all.