Tasmania’s Huon Valley can now lay claim to the largest wassailing gathering in the Southern Hemisphere.
- The Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival kicks off this Friday at the Ranelagh Showgrounds
- The festival has the largest gathering of wassailers in the Southern Hemisphere
- The ancient practice of wassailing is making a comeback across the world
The sixth Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival kicks off on Friday, and it is expected almost 20,000 people will attend over three days.
It is a time when the remote rural area is traditionally quiet and sleepy, but interstate ticket sales are up 25 per cent on last year.
The burning of ‘Big Willie’, a two-storey wicker man, will mark the start of the festival.
The Old Twelfth Night
Celebrating apples has been a rich part of the region’s history.
In 1952 Miss Beverley Lovell of Huonville was crowned Tasmania’s first Apple Queen in front of a reported 15,000 people.
She described it to the Mercury newspaper as the “greatest thrill of her life”.
In following years the then-prime minister Robert Menzies attended to announce the winner.
After a hiatus since the mid-1960s, when apple markets began to change, the Huon Mid-Winter Festival has tried to revive the salute to the apple with its own flair through an event which celebrates pagan and folk traditions.
The celebrations from the Apple Queen days took place in autumn to mark the harvest, but the Mid-Winter Festival takes place 12 days after the winter solstice, known as the Old Twelfth Night.
The Mid-Winter Festival started when Willie Smith’s Cider co-founder and festival director Sam Reid travelled to the United Kingdom and came across wassailing.
Thousands gathered for apple celebrations in the 1950s, but the region was without a major festival for several decades. (The Australian Women’s Weekly)
Paying homage to the apple
Aside from food and music, a key part of the Huon Mid-Winter Festival is about drinking and singing to the apple trees to ensure a good harvest, complete with dozens of Morris dancers from across Australia.
“The idea was to have a festival that paid homage to the apple,” Mr Reid said.
There is no Apple Queen pageant, but patrons are encouraged to dress up in their ‘finest pagan garb’ and ‘tatters’.
The wassail king and queen lead the crowd in singing, and toast soaked in mulled cider is presented as a gift to the tree spirits.
The old English tradition is meant to scare away evil spirits and awaken the trees so they produce a good crop.
“Without a good harvest we won’t have cider to sell,” Mr Reid said.
When Willie Smith’s took over the old Apple and Heritage Museum at Grove and turned it into a cidery, Mr Reid continued to research cider mythology and techniques.
In the United Kingdom he came across wassailing and the Green Man, a tree spirit.
“It fell naturally into place,” he said.
“The intention was to let people know that the Huon Valley is open for business in winter.”
The festival is still growing, and will this year take over the Ranelagh Showgrounds.
Wassailing makes a comeback
Historian at the State Library and Archive Service Alicia Marchant said wassailing has been recorded as far back as 1585 in Kent, but did not make its way to Tasmania until 2014 when the Mid-Winter Festival embraced it.
“It’s a very ancient tradition that started in Southern England around the apple growing areas like Devon and Dorset,” she told ABC Radio Hobart.
“Groups, usually men, would walk between orchards and make as much noise as possible and singing, with gusto, wassailing songs.”
She said they would dress up in bright costumes, such as pagan furs, green face paint and foliage.
“Their purpose was to scare away evil spirits that could lurk in the orchard and do damage to the precious crop,” she said.
Morris dancers join in wassailing at the Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival. (Supplied: Natalie Mendham)
Dr Marchant said wassailing was making a comeback throughout England and the United States.
Wassailing will take place at 170 events throughout England.
It has been connected to Morris dancing since the 1920s, Dr Marchant said, but it is not known how long the two traditions have gone hand in hand.
“We don’t really know how much it went about because folk traditions weren’t written down,” Dr Marchant said.
At this year’s festival 70 Morris dancers will join the wassailing.