H.E. Bulstrode

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Appeasing the Spirits of Our Orchards: the Customs of Old Twelfth Night

Despite the title, this article has not been penned by The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle, and no police officers, or anyone else, will be callously sacrificed to restore fertility to the orchards of the West Country during the coming days. Tomorrow will be Old Twelfth Night, which is to say the final day of Christmas as reckoned by the Julian calendar until its replacement in Britain by the Gregorian Calendar in September 1752. This change caused an instant ‘leap forward’ in time from Wednesday 2 September to Thursday 14 September, bringing the calendar back into line with the Earth’s annual progress around the Sun. Somehow, this seemed neither right nor proper to a number of rustic celebrants, so they continued to mark Old Twelfth Night long after the reform, as did the Russians until they switched to the Gregorian way of doing things in 1918, which is why the October ‘Revolution’ (more correctly a Bolshevik coup d’état) actually took place in November.  

Twelfth Night celebrations originally constituted the highpoint of Christmastide revelry, but these have over the years dwindled into insignificance and near extinction. It is now little more than a footnote, with only the tradition of wassailing keeping its name alive in some parts of England. Even so, although the wassail itself has undergone something of a modest revival in recent decades, it remains strongest in its West Country heartland, where it often takes place on Old Twelfth Night, which falls on 17 January.

The wassail ostensibly takes place with a view to propitiating the spirit of the orchard by singing and drinking to the health of the trees, but as this bare outline of the practice illustrates, it is rather more likely to be to the benefit and good cheer of the participants, than to the wellbeing of the trees of the orchard themselves. It involves, most unusually for England, the use of firearms, with gunshots being let off to scare away evil spirits. The ritual of the wassail inspired the disorientating opening scene of a ghost story, in which the discharge of a blunderbuss in a Somerset apple orchard on Old Twelfth Night presages the disturbing nature of that which is to come. The local menfolk have lately returned from the trenches of the Great War, and despite the wishes of the local landowner, his reinstitution of the wassail fails to restore the past order. This is but one aspect of the collision between encroaching modernity and tradition dealt with in the story, in which the former unleashes darker and older forces. There is, however, also a marked humorous streak to this tale and its follow-up.  

Having taken a quick look at this year’s events, I see that wassailing will be celebrated at a number of locations across the West Country, including at the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury, and the Avalon Orchard at Glastonbury Tor this Saturday (the selection of Saturday being, presumably, a concession to people’s availability). There will also be a wassail on the traditional date of Friday 17 January at Sheppy’s Cider Farm Shop in Bradford-on-Tone. The picture seen here is of an apple tree in Cotehele’s Old Orchard in Cornwall, which can be found next to its ‘Mother Orchard’ planted in 2007 to preserve and propagate traditional varieties of West Country apple. A noble undertaking, so let us raise a cup to the endeavours of Mary Martin and James Evans, the apple specialists who conceived this noble undertaking. Wassail!  

Old Crotchet: ‘Clever little story. A hidden gem.’ Malcolm D. (Amazon UK).

‘H.E. Bulstrode’s tale of the sinister happenings in an old manor on Twelfth Night makes good reading – the plot is somewhat akin to Wilkie Collins work with Agatha Christie characters.’ Plain Jane (Amazon Spain).

‘This first book of the West Country Tales series created a new Bulstrode fan.’ Sandy V. (Amazon US).

Old Crotchet’s Return: ‘Great characters and a totally creepy story. Loved this book. When I first started reading I had to turn back and check the copyright date – it is very well written in the style of the 1920s.’ Bellamy Station (Amazon US).

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