Mid-Hudsonites are blessed to live smack in the heart of orchard country, and many of our day-visitors and vacationers are enticed here by our abundance of venues for apple-picking. Dutch and English settlers started importing apple trees to our region right from the get-go, and also discovered some fine varieties growing wild. The Esopus Spitzenburg, native to Ulster County, was reportedly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple; it is still praised by heirloom fruit mavens as “unexcelled in flavor and quality” and “the king of all the apples.” Among its commercially successful descendants is the Jonathan, first grown in the town of Woodstock.
But those European colonists were less interested in apples for eating than for hard cider, which was drunk by people of all ages at all meals back in the days when safe drinking water wasn’t a thing to be taken for granted. Over time, as cider waned in popularity and especially after the enactment of Prohibition, Hudson Valley orchardists uprooted their cider apple trees and replaced them with varieties that were sweeter and more popular for eating out of hand.
Now that trend is reversing. Farsighted apple-growers have been grafting scions of heirloom varieties onto more and more of their tree stock. Since the passage in 2014 of New York State’s Farm Cidery Law, legalizing on-site sale of alcoholic cider at the orchards where it’s produced, craft cider has become as fashionable as craft beer or regional wines. Cidery “pub crawls” are now a thing.
All this is a stroke of luck for orchardists, whose fortunes wax and wane with the weather. In the Hudson Valley, a late frost or a punishing hailstorm can mean the loss of most of a year’s fruit crop and severe financial setbacks. To stay in business through a bad year, they (like all farmers) need to strategize alternative income streams. Apple-picking or pumpkin-picking, corn mazes or scarecrow dioramas, petting zoos or tractor-train tours – all serve to bolster the flow of agritourism dollars. If you can turn a barn into a tasting room and lure the grownups as well as the kids, so much the better.
Thus, it’s a bit of a puzzlement why more of our local orchards haven’t jumped on the bandwagon of reviving the European practice of apple-tree wassailing. Still observed in the cider-producing West of England (primarily Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire), it’s an ancient pre-Christian tradition in which people sing, dance and make offerings of pieces of toast sopped in cider to a venerable tree embodying the spirit of the orchard, begging (or in some villages, threatening) for an abundant harvest.
Elizabeth Ryan began doing the wassail annually at her Breezy Hill Orchards in Staatsburg in 1996, and imported the practice to Ulster County when she acquired Stone Ridge Orchards in 2004. Because of Covid-19, it didn’t happen in 2020, but a scaled-down version of her Spring Wassail – for the fully vaccinated only – took place at the Stone Ridge location this year on May 1.
“Originally we did the purest form of the Anglo-Celtic tradition,” said Ryan of how Breezy Hill’s Spring Wassail got started. “It was relatively unknown in America at that time; I wasn’t even sure that anyone still did it. I went to England and called a very famous artisan cidermaker in Somerset named Richard Sheppy and asked him, ‘Do you still sing to the trees?’ He said, ‘We’re doing it next week, and you have to come. You have to. You called me; you’re a part of it now.’ So I went, and it was extraordinary: There were about 500 people in the dark. They torched an enormous bonfire.”
Inspired, Ryan brought the practice to America, and the following year, 1997, she invited some English wassail singers to join her celebration of “660 years of unbroken tradition. They gave me the hat and the song, so now I have to do it.”
Her wassails, staged in spring, don’t conform precisely to the British version, which traditionally occurs on the 17th of January (Twelfth Night, prior to the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752). That’s before the trees even begin to bud out, but comes about a week after Plough Monday, considered the beginning of the agricultural year in England.
Wassailing the apple trees in May, when they’re in full bloom, not only makes the Hudson Valley event more tourist-friendly, but it also melds nicely with the culture that Ryan encountered during subsequent travels in the Balkans. Part of the English apple-tree wassailing tradition involves making a lot of noise to “wake up the trees” by banging on drums, pots and pans or even firing off guns (powder only, no bullets). Eastern European countries, she noted, have “many spring-awakening traditions” associated with Djurdjevdan, St. George’s Day, on May 6.
At this year’s Spring Wassail, most of the musicians who showed up under the enormous 350-year-old white oak tree in the middle of Stone Ridge Orchards favored the Balkan folkloric sound. Drummers beat out complex polyrhythms to back a variety of exotic stringed instruments, an accordion, woodwinds and even a tuba, playing in minor keys and unusual time signatures that, to the Western ear, evoke a sense of tribal Old-World mystery. “This isn’t a band; it’s a jam,” Ryan explained before slipping away to pass out disposable plastic gloves to attendees who wanted to join an undulating line dance. “This is completely ad hoc. We normally have a 30-piece brass band.”
Meanwhile, orchard staff sold snacks and cider by the glass or the flight to a loose-knit crowd of perhaps 100 people. Nightfall brought a blazing bonfire of applewood trimmings, where children gathered to warm themselves until the musicians finally decided it was time to serenade the chosen apple tree and place lit candles and sops of bread among its branches.
There are a variety of traditional West Country songs that go by the title of “Apple Tree Wassail” or “Somerset Wassail,” some stately and some sprightly. The version chosen by the musician friends of Stone Ridge Orchards is essentially the same as that recorded by the Christmas Revels (www.youtube.com/watch?v=FX7UwMC83iM).
Old apple tree, we wassail thee
And hope that you may bear
For the Lord doth know
Where we shall be
Come apples another year
For to be well
And to bear well
So merry let us be
Let everyone take off their hats
And shout out to the old apple tree
The sung verses are followed by a little chant to ensure an ample harvest:
Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stairs
Hip, hip, hooray!
Hopefully, the tree magic will work for the 2021 season, as Ryan and her staff struggle to recover from a year of COVID casualties, frost damage, low sales and no tourism. “We didn’t do it last year, and we pretty much lost our crop,” she said ruefully. “It’s our tradition to bless the crop.” As rules against public gatherings begin to relax, the orchard is looking forward to better times and more visitors, seeking a return to a sense of community – along with a sack of crisp apples or a nice pint of Hudson Valley cider.