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Slayton: Twelfth Night

There are several apple trees scattered about my Montpelier neighborhood. Not just ornamental crabapples, but real, full-sized apple trees that offer real fruit every year, and plenty of it. This past fall, every tree in the neighborhood bore a bumper crop.

Just up the street, I have neighbors who pick the fruit and mill the resulting harvest into cider – it’s good cider, too. They let some of their cider ferment and turn into hard cider, and some of that, they freeze and tap off the liquid alcohol for applejack. That’s not bad either!

I ate my share of the low-hanging apples and the drops, and I know others helped themselves to the spontaneous bounty. Maybe this helps explain why all this holiday season, I’ve been singing “The Apple Tree Wassail” to myself – and humming and whistling its lovely minor-inflected tune

Just about every year, around solstice time as the days shorten dramatically, I find myself attracted to some holiday music or other. It could be music with a Christian theme, like Handel’s incomparable Messiah; or something that reflects the shameless commercialism of the season – something weird and wacky like “ Christmas Island” – in which Santa comes paddling through the South Seas to deliver presents in a canoe!

But often I’m reminded that this wonderful season was, in fact, pagan before it was Christian, and I go around humming wassail tunes and remembering America’s Puritan forbears – who banned Christmas back in the 17th century as a frivolous excuse for drunkenness, mayhem and - nature worship.

Which brings us back to “The Apple Tree Wassail,” as delightful a bit of pantheism as you’ll find anywhere. It was sung in England on 12th night ( January 6th), and the version I know declares:

Old Apple Tree, we’ll wassail thee
And A-hoping thou wilt bear.
For the Lord does know where we may go
To be merry another year.

The song urges the apple tree to blossom and bear well and urges every singer to “raise up his glass” and drink a health to “the old apple tree.”

And here’s the truly wonderful part. The wassailers would go out into the apple orchards on this date, and sing to the trees! They might encircle a single tree or wander through the orchard singing. They’d pour hard cider on the roots of the winter-dormant trees and bedeck their boughs with bits of rum-soaked cake, ribbons and other offerings, urging the trees to be fruitful in the coming year.

All this and more links back to the old rites and old worship that surrounded the solstice – the unsettling dark time of the year. In all probability the “pagans” were Celts – Druids – worshipping the spirits they believed inhabited and enlivened nature, doing their bit to bring back spring.

And since Vermont has long been known as a place where nature-worship flourishes, I find it easy to imagine bands of happy singers wandering through our orchards – perhaps even my own neighborhood – singing to the trees.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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