The Huon Valley Mid Winter Festival is a pagan inspired event, held in the deepest darkest (and coldest) reaches of a gorgeous southern valley in Tasmania, every year in the dead middle of Winter.
A festival of feasting, fire and frivolity that pays homage to traditions old and even older. Essentially serving as a celebratory ritual to bless the apple orchards for a bountiful year to come and a release of any negative energy in the surrounds.
It’s also a massive, muddy party with a shite-load of delicious local food and local booze.
An Apple Adventure
I first found out about the Huon Valley Mid Winter Fest while attending the weird and whacky shenanigans that encompass Dark Mofo in 2018, the arguably most famous Winter festival in Australia.
Learning the fest was hosted at the Apple Shed of my most favoured Aussie cider, Willie Smiths, I was hooked at the idea of a three-day festival revolving around (what I thought to be) shaking off of the Winter chills in a wild celebration of booze and fire. Warm, mulled, appley booze and the biggest bonfire I’d ever seen in an Instagram photo, let alone real life.
For 2019, the festival was relocated to the nearby Ranelagh Showgrounds. I’ll admit this, did kill some of my romantic thoughts I had about running wild through the apple trees late at night in perhaps naught but a birthday suit. A girl can dream.
Turns out, the most fantastic thing about the fest wasn’t in the things I’d most been looking forward to (booze and food). Though the feast and drink were exceptional.
The Festival Traditions
First off. You need to understand how cold it is in the middle of Tassie in the dead of winter. It’s not, oh I need to rug up cold. It’s wearing thermals, thick clothing, wind-proof laters and covering as much skin as possible cold.
The wind chill coming off the Artic had each night feeling about -2 to 0 degrees. Which my European friends will tell me I’m being a sook about, but since most of the visitors that aren’t locals to the festival are from Australia, it’s worth a mention.
Which makes the use of fire perfectly sensical. Lots of fire.
Even though it utterly pissed down. Which if you put two and two together means there was probably a little less fire than there could have been. It’s science.
Welcome To Country: Nayri Niara
To let go of any negative energy surrounding the festival and the crops, to make way for the new, and to respect the traditional land owners past, present and emerging the wonderful Nayri Niara group performed a traditional welcoming and cleansing ceremony.
The group of indigenous locals encouraged everyone to follow them moving through the crowd, the rain and mud from the bottom-most point of the event to the top paddock where the 15-metre tall “Big Willie” stood.
Burn Willie Burn
Lighting the 15-metre effigy by a flaming arrow is to symbolise the culmination of the welcome ceremony and the letting go of any remaining negative energy.
Mother nature may have had other plans.
Indeed prior to setting Big Willie alight it had rained. A lot. There was quite a murmur in the crowd that there was no way he’d burn that night. It even looked like the event may have been a wash-out.
She’s a funny old mum like that. As if it were clockwork, the skies cleared to a light drizzle a mere 15 minutes before Willie’s scheduled cremation allowing the ceremony to go on. Minus the flaming arrow part, and with the addition of a lot more what I assume was kerosene to get him going. He was quite soggy.
Then she settled into drenching us for the rest of the night.
Wassailing The Crop
Wassailing might be my new favourite activity. At least my favourite activity that is done in the middle of a dark and muddy field!
“Orchard visiting” Wassailing is singing and reciting/singing a blessing to the apple trees. whilst offering them a piece of apple cider soaked toast and most definitely imbibing in the delicious drink yourself.
The ritual is intended to promote a thumpingly good harvest for the coming year, and even though it was nipply, drizzly and very very muddy the Huon Valley Mid Winter Festival is now recognised as the largest “wassailing” gathering in the Southern hemisphere. WASSAIL!
Donning Your Tatters
I had the most fun time coming up with a fantastical pagan costume (above) that drew heavily on the Norse god of Winter, Skadi for inspiration. But mostly I just had fun with the creative side of it.
A dogs skull, a few pig ribs, some fake leaves a shitload of superglue, wire, stick-on pearls, spray paint and et voila!
I told you I costume hard. Turns out a little harder than I thought as my white furry, boney creation actually won best female costume and $250 cold hard cash that was promptly turned into more food. I’m not even mad.
Pagan Feasting Like No Other
Though it might feel odd to talk about the feasting and food last, it is certainly not least.
I truly believe that local food in Tasmania tastes like it should. It’s staggeringly fresh due to being seasonal and has an honesty and authenticity about it that just shrugs off the necessity to over season the ingredients. I’m yet to have a bad meal in Tassie.
Lunch guests were served a shockingly full board of smoked beef cheek, grilled chicken, smoked pork neck, ash buried pumpkin, local root vegetables, greens and of course some exclusively blended Willie Smith’s cider.
The entire festival is circled with local food and drink vendors to keep bellies full and hearts warm. Special mention to the duck broth at “The Porky Duck”. I still need a moment every time I think about it.
It’s difficult to describe a lot of the special moments had at this festival. Despite the chill, the rain and the transportation difficulties (lots of mud = lots of bogs) I simply cannot wait to come back next year.
I’ve got the best costume title to defend!