In keeping with the Christmas season theme this week, I thought that I would share a little about the old tradition of wassailing. I find it interesting how a raucous, sometimes drunken, ritual of the past could have evolved into the caroling of today. With many men away at war, I doubt that my ancestors’ 1780 neighborhood of southwestern Virginia engaged in wassailing, but like most celebrations, Americans throw all of the traditions into a big pot for anyone to pick and choose the parts they like best. Such is the case with Wassail and so I will share my version of this seasonal treat.
In one of my previous jobs, our workplace would during the Christmas Season have an open house for staff, volunteers and the public. We decorated the office and brought appetizers and desserts to snack on. One volunteer would always bring the Christmas punch. As this was generally held at the office as an open house for staff and public, the punch was of the nonalcoholic variety. Jan would arrive the morning of the party with her old school coffee urn that could hold copious amounts of coffee. Spices went into the filter basket that usually held the ground beans, you know, the ones that produce that heavenly aroma that signals to our brain in the mornings that our daily jolt of caffeine is about to arrive… Well, this particular basket was reserved for nothing but spices; allspice, cinnamon and cloves. Jan would add to the the bottom of the urn brown sugar along with apple cider and fruit juices. She would then plug it in and allow the whole business to perk through a cycle.
The result was a beautiful, warming sweet blend of fruit punch and spice that took the chill away no matter the weather outside. Jan called this punch Wassail. Having no previous experience with Wassail (or nonalcoholic Christmas punch in those days) I decided to root out the history of this warming drink.
Wassailing is an old English custom dating back to the medieval times to a drink made with warmed mead, spices and baked apples. It later evolved into a cider-based drink with added alcohol and spices which was consumed while hanging slices of soaked toast to the branches of apples trees in the orchard for the birds. This ritual was held during twelfth night and was to ensure a good harvest the following season. Songs were sung along with the banging of pots and pans and occasional gunfire into the air to awaken the tree spirits and wassail “drunk to the health” of the trees. Below is one stanza of a wassailing song.
Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We’ve come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.
Over time, wassailing evolved into merrymakers going door to door and singing for treats and money at the homes of the wealthy. At times, it could become rowdy with the singers coming inside of homes and making demands. The old carol, “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” refers to this custom with carolers demanding, “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding…We won’t go until we’ve got some…” Our current day tradition of Christmas caroling is a throw back to these traditions of old England, first outlawed here in the young United States as pagen then, in later years, allowed in a tempered version as the influence of our Puritan ancestors receded. The Colonial Williamsburg website has a recipe for wassail that would be more in keeping with the era, along with an excellent history of this ancient ritual. You can find it at the link below.
Our volunteer was a very helpful worker who gave countless hours of her time over the years. When asked, she shared her wassail recipe, stopping on the spot to write it down. I don’t have a coffee urn to perk this beautiful beverage, but I do have a slow cooker set to low that does the job when the spices are added to a tea ball and dropped in. You could just add the spices directly to the punch and watch for them as you serve it up to your own revelers. For a party, a few slices of orange and or lemon will add a little extra touch…as will some wine if you’re in the mood. Jan is no longer here to share her holiday Wassail so I am doing so for her, in her own hand:
We wish you a Merry Christmas…and a Happy New Year!