Good Health—Wassail!


One of the things that has made me love our Baltimore neighborhood is a scrappy little apple tree in Robert Baker Park. When Jake and I first moved to Baltimore, we didn’t know much about the neighborhoods and picked a house in Federal Hill that would be convenient to school for Jake.

Quickly, we learned that “Fed Hill” and our subsequent neighborhood South Baltimore (“SOBO”) have a reputation for sports bars, sports bros, and a generally unpleasant bougie atmosphere among Baltimore’s other residents. None of these things have entered our lives much, but I do miss encountering trees on a regular basis, finding herbs in the woods in Southern Maryland, and seeing the stars at night.

From concrete, I’ve fought out our little garden in the backyard, and I do love walking around the harbor near our place. There are stunning parks in South Baltimore, from the regal Federal Hill Park overlooking the city, to the slightly feral Middle Branch Park, to the meticulous native plant landscaping of Port Covington Park (where I’ve never seen another human, but the sunset over the Middle Branch of the Patapsco is stunning).

These corners have made me love South Baltimore, at least for a time. But this little apple tree has my heart. Robert Baker Park is a tiny little thing, hidden away on light street behind a brick wall and some brambles. I happened upon it while walking the dog. It’s almost a secret garden! There are beautiful flowers that bloom from spring through fall, and the three trees are always mulched.

I’m not sure what kind of apple tree lives there, although the graft at the bottom of the stem is obvious so it’s not a happenstance. Jake is convinced they are Granny Smith’s because they are green, and I am convinced they are nothing of the sort! I like the mystery of not knowing what apple the tree bears among the hundreds of possible apples. I do know they make good cider, applesauce, and we’ve eaten a fair share out of hand. Our dog, Major, likes them too.

It’s not a glorious apple tree, but it is a living thing that provides simple jewels year in and year out, and that oasis of a tree has makes me at peace with this city. Over time I have found other moments, too—the white mulberries behind the casino, the serviceberries in Locust Point, the hawthorn at the science center, the wild blackberries in Fed Hill, the wild grapes in SOBO, the fragrant mugwort patches that grow in every park. Nature remains present.

The Old Twelfth Night, January 17th, is becoming my ritual. In West England and Wales it is a cause for celebration and an occasion for wassail—meaning good health! I feel the new year most deeply on this day. Traditionally Wassail is a night of caroling, revelry, and blessings to encourage good health and good harvest in the coming year. Revelers go to their orchards, scaring spirits with pots, pans, and gunshots; feeding their trees with cider soaked literal ‘toasts;’ and drinking mulled cider for health (sometimes called wassail itself).

I have yet to manage a band of midnight revelers to do the tradition true justice, but I do take the week to visit some of the trees, especially the apple tree, and give them a moment of my time. In the new year, a day of wassail helps me to feel grounded in the cycle of the seasons and look forward to the promise of the days ahead! And, on these wintry days, I make sure to enjoy a bit of mulled cider, too- a cozy treat for a cold, long night.

Mulled Cider (For Two)

In a small pot, warm 4 oz dry cider (like Shacksbury, Eden, and Distillery Lane) and 4 oz water on low heat. Add 2 cloves and a cinnamon stick. Do not let the liquid boil, just slowly come up to warm. As it warms, stir in 1 tbsp honey. Stir occasionally while the liquid is warming.

Separately, boil water. Once boiling, pour the hot water into two mugs to warm the glass.

Just as the cider thinks about simmering, add 2.5 oz sweet vermouth or apple brandy. Stir for just a moment, then remove the cider from heat and take out the spices. Empty the mugs and pour the mulled cider into two warmed mugs. Garnish with a fresh cinnamon stick and brandied cherries, then grab yourself a blanket and get lost in the depths of the cider and time.

A traditional wassail blessing for the orchard:

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
For to bear well, and to bear well
So merry let us be.
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout to the old apple tree!
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stairs.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Rick says:

    Very inspirational, I’m glad you have discovered these peaceful vignettes of nature.🌞🌳🍂💐🌜


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