Wassailing, Cattern cakes and Plow Monday

Thank you so much to everyone who came to our first wassailing at the community orchard yesterday – and especially those who brought pans to bang, came as green men, played instruments, put out signs, made apple cake etc. It was great to see so many people – over 60?

While researching wassailing, I pulled a book off the shelves called ‘Cattern Cakes and Lace’ by Julia Jones and Barbara Deer, which is a calendar of traditional feasts. Written because ‘In modern towns, the seasons now melt into one another, but I believe that men and women still need to be in touch with the rhythm of life and experience the changes in the cycle of the year.’ The book looks at the traditional festivals and the foods that would have been cooked for them – so lots of inspiration for future transition events!

While looking at January, I came across Plow Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, when the holiday season would end and farm labourers would start their year’s work again – but starting with a festival with leaping dances, as the height people leapt indicated the height of the next corn harvest. Decorated ploughs would be dragged round the streets and anyone not donating would have their gardens ploughed up. A Fool would dance behind the plough.

Although being in touch with the seasons and holding community events with food is very transitional, one conversation that kept occurring was over the pagan elements of such festivals, and how does that fit into today’s society, and will it offend Christian members of out community? On a very local level – we want the orchard to be there for the community and to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. Judging by the number of people who came yesterday (one of our most succesful events to date) I would suggest that there is a need to get out in the weak wintry sunshine and take part in traditions that have taken place for hundreds of years – and that if people want to hold other events, eg blessing the trees, that would be great too.

Decorating the trees with toast, nourishing them for the year ahead, reminded me of a key philosophy seen around the world in many different cultures – that families, friends and communities are bound to each other often by gifts, sometimes symbolic. Very often in modern society we forget these bonds, forget to give thanks, and forget to give in turn.

The native American tribes on the Pacific coast would always give back to the river the bones of the first salmon caught, to ensure the gift cycle continued. It occurred to me yesterday that we were also enacting a gift cycle: in Spring we have the gift of blossom, in Summer the leaves as shelter, in Autumn apples for cider, and in Winter we give back to the trees through the symbolic gift of cider and toast dipped in cider. I think the robin who was eyeing all the toast was more than happy with the gift too…

Anyway, following the success of yesterday I’m hugely encouraged for the coming year- and inspired with lots of ideas for next year’s Wassailing. Knowing how many people might come allows us to plan bigger and better…

PS Cattern cakes made with cinnamon, currants and almonds are made on St Catherine’s Day, the patron saint of spinners and lacemakers, so we’ll have to wait till November before trying them…

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