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Monday, 24 January 2011

An urban wassail

"Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be 'til apples come another year."
The old West Country tradition of wassailing is being reclaimed and revived for the urban environment. Wassail - from the Anglo Saxon Waes Hael (to be healthy) - was an ancient fertility rite to wake fruit trees from their winter slumber and scare away evil spirits, ensuring a good harvest. Around the old Twelfth Night, January 17,  folk would go out into the orchards bearing a wassailing cup, and sing to the trees before making a great noise to frighten away malignant forces. The tree would be toasted, some drink poured on the trunk, and pieces of bread put among the branches, perhaps as an offering to the tree spirit.

Now residents of Willesden Green in NW London have taken this custom and used it to bring life back to their high street. On a bleak January Sunday, they paraded through the main shopping area (above), serenading local independent retailers and wishing them health and prosperity.
The event was organised by storyteller Rachel Rose Reid (here leading the singing) who brought with her a host of singers, fellow storytellers, comedians and performance artists to entertain the crowd. Orchards being rather thin on the ground, the procession ended outside the local library by two crab apple trees planted the previous winter. Cider and apple juice were poured around their roots, and branches decorated with ribbons to symbolise the traditional food before the wassailers repaired to a nearby cafe to warm up and chat.
Their verdict? Unusual, fun, and a great way to waken community spirit, even if the trees prefer to slumber a little longer.

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