Once upon a time I had a sweet, British friend in primary school. Every Christmas she would mention “wassailing”. I had no idea what it was but, rather than look like an ignorant buffoon, I just smiled, nodded my head and went along with whatever she said then quickly changed the subject. But, the wassail mystery haunted me throughout the winter holidays.
Wassailing is an ancient custom that is not practiced very much today. The old Anglo-Saxon phrase that eventually morphed into “wassail” originally meant “good health”. Wassail was actually a warm, alcoholic beverage. Ale was mulled with combinations of roasted apples, cloves, sugar, nutmeg, eggs, etc.
Traditionally, Twelfth Night holiday gatherings and New Year’s Eve parties would serve wassail in large, communal bowls. It would be affectionately called “Lamb’s Wool” because of its pulpy consistency. This beverage was so popular it even had its own holiday carols. An example of one follows:
“Here we go a-wassailing,
Among leaves so green,
Here we go a-wassailing,
Life is fair as seen:
Joy and Love to you,
And to your wassail, too,
May God bless and send to you,
A Happy New Year,
A Happy New Year.”
Wassailing was more than just getting together to enjoy a spiced, mulled drink. The Twelfth Night celebration originated from the ritual that asked God to provide a plentiful harvest of apples. Villagers would encircle an apple tree. Then they would hang from the tree slices of toast that had been soaked in apple cider. The cider-toast was an offering to the robins. Robins were considered to be good tree spirits. A loud noise would then be made (drums, firing off a gun) in order to scare off the evil spirits and then the singing and wassailing began.
Some villages would designate a Wassail King and Queen who would preside over the festivities. Often they would lead a parade of carolers from orchard to orchard singing blessings upon the apple trees. Many of these old carols are kept alive in modern productions created, performed and recorded by modern British pop bands.
As an adult I now practice the tradition of wassailing during the winter holidays. As I prepare my concoction (a non-alcoholic version), my home is soon filled with the spicy aroma of what can only be called the “smell of Christmas”. It creates such a cozy feeling it is perfect to prepare not only for parties and gatherings of loved ones, but also to serve up every evening as soon as the weather outside is cold.
So, for a perfect cup of wassail, try this recipe:
• 1 gallon of apple cider
• 3 cups of orange juice
• 1 cup of pineapple juice
• 5 hibiscus herbal tea bags
• One dozen sticks of cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon cloves, whole
• 1 heaping tablespoon blueberries
• 2 inch nub of fresh ginger sliced thinly
• 1 apple cored and sliced into rings
• 1 orange sliced into rings
Note: For a festive, bubbly wassail, add ginger ale. Half a liter can be added to the recipe or a little bit can be added to each individual cup.
Place ingredients into a slow cooker. Cover and cook on high heat for three hours. When liquid darkens and fruit has softened, serve.
This recipe will serve about a dozen cups of wassail. Happy Holidays!