Huon Valley Midwinter Festival: Wassails, Bonfires and Storytelling

It can get pretty cold in southern Tasmania in the winter – so why not have a festival with dancing round a bonfire, drinking cider, singing and evoking ancient spirits? By Jeremy Torr.

July 14 2018, Tasmania. In 2013, the folks at Willie Smith’s Cider farm decided that they wanted to perk up the gloomy winter nights in Huonville, Tasmania. They hit on the idea of a festival celebrating the coming of spring, and the potential stirring of sap in their sleeping cider apple trees. Enough people turned up to make them think the first event was worth repeating.

 The Wicker Man gets the fire purification treatment in the Huon Valley Orchard. Courtesy J.Torr

The Wicker Man gets the fire purification treatment in the Huon Valley Orchard. Courtesy J.Torr

So, the Huon Valley Festival was born, and five successful years later some 18,000 people made the trip to the 2018 festival. They were treated to a host of food and drink stalls, a recreation of the old English tradition of group wassailing, a brilliant storytelling competition, and a bonfire big enough to warm their thermals from 10 metres away.

The Wassail

One of the key parts of the festival is the Wassail, or more correctly, 'waes hael' in its original Anglo-Saxon. Broadly translated, it means good health – which is what ancient farmers used to wish their fields and trees during the darker days of medieval English winter. The tradition came about as a way of anticipating – and hopefully influencing - a good harvest later in the year, once the buds had burst in the Spring.

 The wassailers certainly dresssed the part. Courtesy J. Torr

The wassailers certainly dresssed the part. Courtesy J. Torr

Wassailing had several components. They included the scaring away of bad spirits by beating pots and pans, leaving small offerings to the spirits of the crops and trees, and temporarily forgetting winter by a having a rollicking good time with bonfires and beer. Translate that to the south of Tasmania a thousand or so years later and there you have it – the Huon Valley MidWinter Festival.

As well as the wassail, which this year involved a few shotgun blasts in addition to the traditional wassail chants to scare the bad spirits away, attendees could marvel at Blunderbuss Jones with his flaming trumpet or take a spin on a pedal powered spit, roasting a pig to a crisp. Meanwhile in one of the marquees, the good ladies of Tasmania’s basket weaving community plaited shoreline flotsam into beautiful baskets, echoing an Aboriginal tradition that goes back thousands of years way before the wassailers started chanting up in medieval Europe.

“They kind of just grow their own shapes as you weave,” one weaver told us as she worked. “… it depends on what you are using, and how it wants to go together.” True artisans, as was Dr. Spork, who crafted old silver spoons and forks into a stunning range of jewellery and adornments for those revellers who needed a memento of the night.

 Processions every which way - all for good apples. Courtesy Willie Smith's Cider

Processions every which way - all for good apples. Courtesy Willie Smith's Cider

As Elyse Barnett, the festival’s publicity manager says, even though the event is held in the middle of winter, it really resonates with people - and gets more and more popular each year: the numbers at this year’s festival jumped by almost 20% over 2017..

 The basket weavers ply their thousand-year old skills. Courtesy J.Torr

The basket weavers ply their thousand-year old skills. Courtesy J.Torr

“We get a great range of people coming along and enjoying the festival over the three days,” she told Gaia Discovery. “This year people of all ages particularly loved our storytelling contest – coming along just to hear the tales. The whole team really love the storytelling too, which has become a very important part of the festival.”

Storytelling

The storytellers take a leaf out of the travelling bards that would have kept the Saxons entertained around the fire (there were no flaming trumpet players back then) in European winters. Anybody who fancies they can spin a yarn can get up on stage, and tell their story – or any story. “We judge them on how good and engaging the story is, but also by the way the audience reacts to their words,” says judge and master Tasmanian storyteller Justin Johnston.

 The storytelling tent was an absolute hit with everybody. Courtesy J.Torr

The storytelling tent was an absolute hit with everybody. Courtesy J.Torr

“We had a great line-up this year, with people from around Tasmania and the Huon Valley, also from Hungary, Ireland and an Australian circus performer too,” he says. With stories as varied as a new take on the lives of the Gods (Greek and Irish), how to use caravans to build a family, aboriginal culture, catching yabbies and more, the crowd was entranced. Maybe the mulled cider and hot chick pea soup helped, but the applause was loud and long.

Outside, wassail dancers clad in multicoloured cloaks and pants, made up like forest spirits and wearing top hats, made a super conga to where the Wicker Man – a massive straw-clad sculpture – glowed eerily as the flames licked around his feet until he was consumed in the inferno. There was no being bored at the festival. Even if there were some people who were scared of fire, didn’t like stories and were teetotal, they didn’t seem to care too much as bands like 8Foot Felix, Vulgargrad, The Bootleg Ginsluggers and the Ukrainian duo Tovaresh filled the night sky with mesmerising music and dance juices in the pursuit of a good harvest.

 Tovaresh brought Ukranian folk music to the evening's activities. Courtesy Willie Smith's

Tovaresh brought Ukranian folk music to the evening's activities. Courtesy Willie Smith's

The festival, and the burning of the Wicker Man is, say the organisers, symbolic of a collective purging of last year’s negative energy to renew lives and make way for the farming year’s revitalised fecundity. They say it’s about scaring nasties out of the cider trees to ensure a bumper autumn crop. Judging by the heat, flames, noise and overall festival spirit, the nasties would have been well away by the time it got dark.

Book up now for next year – July sometime, just remember to bring your gumboots and warm socks.