Families enjoy ‘Wassailing the Apple Trees ‘ in Lawrence

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Cynthia Stetz and Elizabeth Alves wouldn’t miss Terhune Orchard’s annual “Wassailing the Apple Trees” for the world.

The annual event, which took place on Feb. 2, has drawn them to the farm on Cold Soil Road in Lawrence Township every year for the past five years.

“It’s fun for the kids and the adults. You learn about a culture you never knew about. We want to make sure the apple trees have a good year,” said Stetz, who lives in Bound Brook.

“Wassail” is medieval  English for “good health.” During the Middle Ages, groups of young men would travel from orchard to orchard to wassail the apple trees – waking up and scaring away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest.

To give the small but hardy band of spectators at Terhune Orchard a taste of medieval England, three groups of dancers – the Handsome Molly Dancers, the Green River Tap and Die Molly Dancers and the Kingessing Morris Dancers – showed off their distinctive styles of dancing.

The Handsome Molly Dancers, dressed in black with their faces painted black or green, were joined by the Green River Tap and Die Molly Dancers. Taking turns, they pranced around in the mud to a tune sung by a caller.

The dance tradition arose in the East Anglia area of England. Out-of-work farm boys would go from house to house just after the Christmas holidays, offering to dance for money or beer. If the landowner refused, he might find his yard plowed up.

The farm boys – one of whom dressed as a woman – would mock the gentlemen. They painted their faces so they would not be recognized by the landowner, who might refuse to hire them in the spring to plow his fields.

Morris dancing, by contrast, originated in England about 800 years ago, before Christianity took root. The dance was traditionally performed in the spring in farming communities, and celebrated the planting season and the rebirth of life.

The Kingessing Morris Dancers wore white shirts and black vests – no jackets allowed. True to Morris dancing tradition, the Kingessing Morris Dancers’ costumes included rows of small bells that they wore on their knees. The jingling was supposed to wake up the ground. They used sticks to chase away the evil spirits from below and to awaken the ground.

Having successfully chased away the spirits from underground, it was time to do the same for the apple trees.

“Welcome to Terhune Orchard’s 22nd annual ‘Wassailing the Apple Trees,’ and thanks for giving the orchard a boost so we can have more apples to squish into cider,” Terhune Orchard staffer Elaine Madigan said.

“We need to make noise to scare the evil spirits out. We need to do harm to the evil spirits,” Madigan said as she encouraged the visitors to bang on bells and shake the noisemakers handed out by staffers.

After a few minutes of noise-making, she led the crowd in chanting a prayer to the spirits of the orchard.

“Spirit of the orchard, spirit of the land, bless this place so beautiful and grand. Keep it safe from unseen evil and blight, through the long winter days and cold winter nights. Great spirit of the orchard, great spirit of the land, a spring birth we beseech of you, and a healthy harvest, too.”

Then it was time to “seal the deal,” Madigan said. She told visitors to take a piece of stale bread, dip it in some cider from last year’s apples, and hang it on a tree branch. Soon, the apple tree limbs were sprouting cider-soaked bread chunks.

And hopefully, in a few months, some apples, too.