Many of us recall these lyrics:
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.
Wassailing? Do any but a few have an idea of what we sing? Wassail has become a tradition of the entire holiday period yet few of us realize the traditional roots, meaning or variations of the celebration. In the distant past it was most associated with Twelfth Night Eve and Twelfth Night celebrations. Twelfth Night has been abandoned and forgotten by most of the world. Except for a Shakespearian play and the January 6 "Three Kings Day" celebration of Hispanic culture, the holiday that once involved blessing the fields, remembering the twelve apostles, and predictions made by oxen time has moved us on. Along with drinking wassail was a range of Twelfth Night customs including singing, mumming, guessing games, and begging to enter a house. At times drink would be demanded while at other times drink would be brought by the participants to the house. There are three types of historic celebrations involving wassail. One can wassail in the hall (or today we might say home) and pass the bowl from one to another. One can also share wassail by taking it with you in a group going from house to house. A third form of wassail involves the blessing of the apple trees and the celebration of the fruit, this last practice having come to us from southern England.
Wassail is a tradition to celebrate and promote health, wealth, and good fortune around the holidays. Few celebration beat wassail and wassailing for joy and a sense of purpose rooted in history dating back centuries. It is likely that the custom of going from house to house singing "Here We Come A-Wassailing" lies at the heart of the modern custom of Christmas caroling.
The exact origins of wassail and the wassailing tradition are somewhat lost to history. Some trace it to the 16th century. Others claim origins as early as the Saxons. There are threads that go back to the early pagans as a sort of harvest ritual. Wassail's true ancestry certainly lies somewhere in a blend of all of these historic traditions. It is clear that the modern observance dates back to old England.
Linguistically the term “wassail” has is easier to follow. The original was "Wes Hal" meaning "Be in Good Health". The host would then raise his tankard and reply "Drink Hail", meaning literally "Drink Health". The act of toasting and drinking wassail was meant to wish good health and then to quite literally consume that good health. An early tradition was to float toasted white bread on surface of the wassail bowl and from this come our modern day concept of “making a toast” or to drink to a wish or greeting.
Wassail is clearly many things! The recipe varies as much as the act itself: wassail in the Hall, wassail in the apple orchard, and wassail door to door. One of the few common elements is that the drink must be served hot. It is noteworthy that recipes call for both non-alcoholic and alcoholic renditions.
A classic recipe for wassail that captures the spirit of spice, warmth and good cheer is this:
1 gallon apple cider
1/2 cup sugar, if cider is tart
12 small apples, peeled with cores removed
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
2 tablespoons brown sugar
In a large pot, slowly heat 3/4 of the gallon of cider, until warm but not boiling. In a second pot mix the remaining cider and add the apples, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger and bring to a boil. Vigorously simmer the apples until they lose their shape and become "frothy". Combine the two liquids and pour into a heat resistant bowl, it should be hot but not boiling. Whip the cream with the salt
and brown sugar until it peaks. Spoon the cream onto the wassail, or add the cream to each mug as it is served. For those seeking a more fortifying drink, apple cider can be replaced by hard apple cider, dry white wine, light ale, or stout beer.
The wassail bowl, historically of wood, long ago became a punch bowl form, and today silver, silverplate, or china punch bowls glow in the candles of the holiday. Combining the aroma of apples and spice in the wassail bowl and mugs makes a timeless addition to any holiday event. Wes Hal!