Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Wassailing the Trees

One of the things that strikes me about pagan holidays is the way that they're all implicated in one another. Yule doesn't just sit enshrined in its own golden halo at the end of the year, touching nothing else. As both the end and the beginning of the solar year—and indeed, the whole of the coming year in microcosm—it reaches back to the previous growing season and harvest, and forward to the coming ones. They say that the Yule you keep affects the year ahead. That's why it's so important to eat rich and ample food during all Thirteen Days. The Devil promised a would-be witch in hunger-stricken 17th century Lowland Scotland, “Thou shalt eat every day as [well as] if it were Yule.”

A few years back a neighbor popped in for some reason or other during the Yuledays. “Beautiful tree,” she remarked. “Not the least bit Christmas-y.”

Well, no. It's covered with blown-glass fruits and vegetables. Every ornament's a prayer.

A surprising number of the wassailing songs that we sing are actually hymns to the trees whose cider we drink. 

Well may'st thou bud, and well may'st thou blow [bloom],

and well may'st thou bear of apples enow [enough]:

hatsful, capsful, good bushel sacks-full, my pockets too.

Hurrah: wassail!

In the old days—in some places they still do—you'd go right out into the orchard and wassail—sing good health—to the trees themselves. Then you pour a libation—of cider, of course—to the oldest tree. (The most sacred libation you can pour to the Ganges is a libation of Ganges water.)

[Excursus: Songwriter Holly Tannen has written a brilliant (and very funny) contemporary wassail song along these lines called The Humboldt Wassail. (That's Humboldt as in Humboldt County, California.) We hope that when you test your crop, you do not get a cough;/We hope you don't get busted, and you don't get rippëd off. You can find it on her newly re-released album, Rime of the Ancient Matriarch. It really isn't Yule until you've sung along with The Humboldt Wassail]

Wednesday night the Mother Berhta Guerrilla Wassailers will be out making the neighborhood rounds. We'll be stopping off at the home of my friends Russell and Nell. They've got two fine young apple trees out back—Haralsons, both of them, one of the very best of our local varieties—one of which bore a bumper crop this year. Russell was kind enough to drop off a sack-full of the apples at my doorstep this fall. You can be sure we'll split one before we go out on our rounds to bless the tree that bore it, and hope for more of the same come fall next year.

This Yule, then, a blessing on your coming year.

And may you eat, every day, just as well as if it were Yule.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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