Today apple trees litter the roadsides of New England, often ignored or painted and photographed for their scenic charms. But from the very first days of colonization, the apple tree served as a mainstay of any New England farm — and cider served as the national drink. Here are nine apple cider traditions, now mostly gone by the wayside.
1. No Wassailing Allowed
Puritans eschewed the English custom of apple wailing or wassailing around the start of harvest time. Farmers carried out the ritual by bringing pans of mulled cider to the orchard, drinking, singing and shouting among the trees.
They also splashed the tree roots with liberal amounts of cider to encourage greater apple production.
The Puritans, who didn’t like the pagan feel of the wassailing, instead held apple bees, also known as “parings” or “cuts.”
During a bee, farmers set out every empty pail, pan, tub and basket they could find in the farmhouse. They heaped barrels of apples in the center of the room. With the help of neighbors they would then empty the barrels, pare and quarter the apples and fill the empty vessels with them.
2.The Harvest Dinner
Apple parings often concluded with a dinner celebrating the completed harvest. It featured foods from the home’s now-bulging stores. People would bring nuts from the attic, apples from the pantry and cider from the cellar.
3. The Kitchen Test
A girl tested her skill in cooking by seeing if she could pare an entire apple and make only a single peel.
4. Love Me, Love Me Not
A girl trying to decide between two boys could use apple seeds to sort the matter out. She would wet two seeds, one representing each boy, and place one on each cheek. The seed that stayed on the longest represented the boy whose heart was true.
5. Apple Cider Traditions and Etiquette
In most years, New Englanders had plenty of cider. In the earliest days of New England, people pressed cider by hand. But soon horse-powered presses took the place of hand presses and the cider flowed as freely as water.
During pressing season, the pressers would offer anyone passing the press a drink of sweet cider. And even when it had hardened in barrels, custom called for a family to offer any guest a drink of cider from the cider store. A large family might put up as many as 100 barrels of cider for a winter.
6. Frozen Cider
Those who wanted more kick to the cider could drink frozen cider. They produced it by leaving hard cider out in the winter. When the water in the cider froze into ice, it could be removed, leaving a denser, more potent cider. The process could be repeated six or seven times to produce a truly potent drink.
7. Apple Orchards Fell to the Temperance Movement
Farmers cut down apple trees by the thousands, perhaps millions, as the temperance movement swept America in the early 1800s. Farmers embracing the new non-alcoholic order removed entire orchards because they couldn’t imagine how they would possibly use the apples if they didn’t press them for cider.
8. Cider Apple Sass
An important task on any farm was producing boiled cider apple sass during the winter.
Similar to apple butter, boiled cider took a lot of work to make. A large pot of cider was brought to a boil and two smaller kettles of cider were kept simmering on the fire. As the water boiled away from the cider in the large pot, more was added from the simmering kettles to keep the process constantly at a boil. The cider thickened into a molasses-like consistency. To finish, peeled and quartered apples were dropped into it and allowed to partially cook. It was then frozen and used like a relish.
9. Dried Apples for Spring
By springtime, the fresh apples, apple butter, apple sass and even cider ran low. A family would then turn to its dried apples for a taste of dried apple pie. In the fall, they had strung up apple slices and hung them outdoors to dry. Once dried, the apples hung in a home’s rafters for the winter until needed. Then, in the spring, the family cook would bring them down, soak and cook them into a dried apple pie.
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Thanks to Old Time Gardens, by Alice Morse Earle. This story about apple cider traditions was updated in 2023. Image of Allen’s cider mill By Sphilbrick – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11863504. Cider Press Building Clyde’s Cider Mill by Cynthia Donovan via Flickr, CC by 2.0.