As a country boy, January was the time when our community started to prepare for the year to come. To do this we looked back on the past – looked forward to the future – and had fun in the present. In many rural communities across the country this sequence – well elements of it – continues to this day. As I write this to post on Saturday next, 16th January, the past and the present merge as one.
Across rural England the first step of the sequence was on the Sunday before the Monday after the twelve days of Christmas. That was ‘Plough Sunday’ – the Sunday when farmers, and most of their workers, went to church to pray for a good year. Farmers each brought a ploughshare to Church, and prayers were said blessing the plough for the good work it had done and would do in the year to come. This still happens across rural parts of the country, though it’s often a tractor that’s brought to church! It is parked outside and the congregation go out to have it blessed where it stands. Until this blessing was completed no farmer, nor his men, would begin ploughing – to do so would bring bad luck for the whole year to come.
The day after ‘Plough Sunday’ is – would you believe – ‘Plough Monday’! References to Plough Monday date back to the late 15th century. This was the day the ploughman would start work – usually by having fun! In many areas they blackened their faces, wore white shirts and dragged a decorated plough through the village in procession. They were often accompanied by musicians, an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman, called the “Bessy”, and a man in the role of the “fool”. This character was usually dressed in skins and a tail, and carried a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick. Often the young men would knock on doors and ask for money, food and drink. In Norfolk ‘Plough Pudding‘ – a boiled suet pudding, containing meat and onions – was the item on offer.
There are, of course, many farming areas in Britain that did not depend on the plough. The orchard farmers are one such group. They don’t have things like a plough to Bless nor a ‘Plough Pudding’ to eat – they go ‘Tree Wassailing’, sometimes called ‘Apple Howling’.
The Apple Wassail is a tradition that links to the cider orchards, mainly in the south-west of the country during the winter. There are many recorded instances of the Apple Wassail – the first recorded mention was in the 1580s in Kent. The routine then appears to have had groups of young men going between the orchards performing the ‘rite for a reward’. The practice was sometimes referred to as “howling” – perhaps they were bad singers!
On Twelfth Night, men would take their ‘Wassail Bowl’ into the orchard and go through the trees laying slices of bread or toast at the roots of the trees. There are also references of the bread being tied to branches. Cider was then poured over the tree roots as a blessing to the tree. In return it was hoped that it would produce a good crop later in the season.
There is a Somerset folktale that tells of the ‘Apple Tree Man’, the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and in whom the fertility of the whole orchard resided. It tells of a man who offered his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard – and was rewarded by the ‘Apple Tree Man’ when he revealed to the kind man the location of buried treasure!
There’s one other thing I’d like to add to these stories – the celebration of ‘Apple Wassailing’ it is held on the old Twelfth Night – 17th January. Just think – if you have a plough you can get blessed, and some Apple trees that benefit from slices of bread, you have a ‘double-whammy’ you can enjoy!