By Clover Carroll
Wassail, wassail, all over the town! Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown. Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree, With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee!
So runs the “Gloucestershire Wassail,” one of many songs associated with the medieval tradition of going from house to house at yuletide carrying an empty bowl or goblet, and singing carols in return for filling the bowl with warm, spiced ale or wine.
The word “wassail” had its origin as a greeting or salute, in old Norse “ves heill” or Middle English “waes haeil,” meaning “be whole,” “be well,” or “be in good health.” Often said while drinking spiced ale or mead, over time the word was transferred from the greeting to the drink, and ultimately to the medieval tradition of “wassailing” during yuletide or to celebrate Twelfth Night.
Traditionally, slices of toasted bread or cake were floated on top of the spiced liquor—which gave rise to the idea of “toasting” someone’s health, and eventually to the spoken toast itself. This practice may have been a way for feudal lords to reward their peasants at yuletide in return for their hard work and good will throughout the year. The ale-soaked, crispy bread, as well as eggs sometimes stirred into traditional wassail, provided extra food to the poor.
This relationship is reflected in “The Wassail Song”:
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,
And God send you a Happy New Year.
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors’ children
Whom you have seen before
The wassail tradition is an ancient one, but no one knows exactly when it began. In pre-Christian times, in a sort of pagan fertility rite, a tree-blessing ceremony was observed in the cider-producing West Country of England. A chosen wassail King and Queen would lead a procession of lantern-bearing revelers from orchard to orchard, where the Queen would sit in the branches and place slices of ale-soaked toast in them as a gift to the tree spirits. Meanwhile, the accompanying revelers, carrying bowls of hard cider, would sing to the tree and bang pots and pans to drive off evil spirits. Sometimes they would bury toast and pour cider amid the roots of the tree while praying for a good apple harvest.
This tradition is still celebrated today in some parts of England. Wassails are held annually in Somerset and Devon on January 17 (old Twelfth Night). In Christian tradition, wassail became associated with the Feast of the Three Kings on Jan. 6, i.e., new Twelfth Night.
Wassail, as a general term for reveling and feasting, is recorded as early as 700 AD in the Old English epic poem “Beowulf.” In Section II, after the monster Grendel slays thirty thanes in their beds after a feast, the poet notes “Then at the dawning, as day was breaking,/ the might of Grendel to men was known;/ then after wassail was wail uplifted,/ loud moan in the morn.” Later, “The rider sleepeth,/ the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,/ in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.”
In his 1135 History of the Kings of Great Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth tells the story of Renwein (Rowena) bringing a golden goblet of wine to King Vortigern. In response to Rowena’s “was hail” as she, curtsying, hands him the wine, his interpreter counsels the king to reply, “drink hail.” “From that day to this,” Geoffrey reports, “the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail”(Wassailing Through History, www.history.org).
In his c.1180 Roman de Rou (the national epic of Normandy), Wace reports that “the night before the Battle of Hastings was spent by the English in revelry, with cries of weissel” (OED).
The idea for this column began with a desire to share my popular spiced cider recipe, which I’ve developed over many years of holiday gatherings. A pot of this winter cheer sits on my stove all through the holidays, as I refresh it with a new batch of cider or the occasional fresh cinnamon stick or nutmeg. As it warms, it perfumes the house better than any pot pourri!
A traditional wassail recipe (one that involves beaten eggs, so be careful not to boil it) may be found at nourishedkitchen.com/traditional-wassail-recipe, or check out the wine-based Williamsburg wassail recipe at www.history.org/foundation/journal/holiday06/WassailRecipe.cfm.
I expect many of you have family wassail recipes of your own. So the next time you say a toast at a wedding or other gathering—whether it be skol, santé, or l’chaim—think of the ale-soaked bread slices floating in the wassail bowl. All of these stories and traditions celebrate the communal sharing of food and drink to brighten the darkest days of the year.
May love and joy come to you and yours this holiday season!
Clover’s Simple Spiced Cider
- 1 gallon good apple cider (Ziegler’s, Showalter’s, or Chiles’) (NOT apple juice!)
- ¼ – ½ cup brown sugar (to taste)
- ½ – 1 cup orange or cranberry juice
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 2 whole nutmegs
- tea ball or sachet of whole allspice and cloves
- peeled fresh ginger (optional)
- orange slices, studded with cloves, to float on top
Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Heat slowly and simmer on low all day. Remove the lid an hour or more before serving to allow the fragrance to fill the house. Serve with an optional splash of Captain Jack (from North Garden) or Harvest Apple (from Faber) brandy.