Keeping alive old customs

Wassailing the apple trees.
Wassailing the apple trees.

Written by Heather Elvidge

A strange thing is happening to time: the mornings are darker than ever, even though the shortest day was last month. While we’re longing for earlier dawns the sun is having a lie-in.

This disappointing phenomenon is due to the tilt of the earth’s axis and our planet’s orbit around the sun, which is more of an oval than a circle. As a result our days aren’t always 24 hours long, when measured by the sun.

We notice it in December and January when clock time creeps more in front every day; by the time we’re halfway through February it’s around 14 minutes ahead of the sun.

So it’s no illusion – January mornings really are darker. We could always reset our timepieces every day, using a sundial...


In 1752, we were one of the last countries in Europe to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and were so far behind that we had to “lose” 11 days. This led to some curiosities in our calendar of customs as rural communities stuck to “Old-style” festival dates.

With the passing of years most gave in and adjusted to the new regime; a few did not. Today there are still communities reckoning customs by the old Julian calendar.

Last week Foula, a tiny island off Shetland, celebrated Old Yule on January 6. Its 30 inhabitants gathered in one house to exchange their gifts, and this Tuesday they visited each other to exchange “Newer Day” greetings. Foula means “bird-island” in old Norse, a form of which was spoken on the island until around 1800.

Foula isn’t alone in pushing the Christmas season into the middle of January. Near Fishguard, in Wales, residents of the Gwaun valley were seeing in Hen Galen (New Year’s Eve) on Monday night. In England, January 17 is Old Twelfth Day, the last of several days for wassailing apple trees.

The custom is associated with cider-apple areas, yet apple-wassailing used to occur in orchards throughout the country. It almost died out early in the last century, but today there are many revivals because it’s so much fun. The aim is to drive away anything that might blight the fruit and encourage a good crop.

The wassailers gather after dark around the oldest tree in the orchard, and sing: “Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and hope that thou wilt bear hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls, and a little heap under the stair.”

To cheers, pans are bashed and shotguns fired to scare away malign forces. A bucket of mulled cider is produced and some is poured over the tree’s roots. Toast that’s been floating in the cider is placed in the branches, for the birds – that’s how we came to “toast” someone with a drink.

So make a date with your apple tree, and share some cider or apple juice by pouring a little on its roots. It’ll thank you, come the autumn.

Old Twelfth Day also gives laggards another chance to take down the decorations. Then again, some say that greenery should be kept up all through the season of Christmas and Epiphany, which ends with Candlemas on February 2.