Holidays With Honey – What The H—- Is A Wassail?


Here We Come A-Wassailing

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
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.

Wassailing refers to the charming English custom of going from house to house singing the above song while drinking plentiful amounts of alcohol and enjoying oneself with others in a noisy, lively way.  Fun!!

Probably because it is so much fun, few holiday traditions have endured as long or seen so many variations. Wassailing’s origins are unknown, but it is mentioned in texts dating as far back as the Fourteenth Century. In one such text, the leader of a group took a bowl and, raising it to the crowd, shouted “Wassail!” an Old English term meaning “to your health” in the same way one might say “Cheers!’ today.

There are three main types of Wassailing. One is the filling of a common bowl or cup often referred to as a Loving Cup and passing it around to be shared.

Another variation is when a bowl is taken around to individual houses in a village so neighbors can partake as friends.

The third is a celebration of the apple harvest and the blessing of the fruit or trees.

In the earliest known days of the practice, the Wassail was poured on to the orchards after harvest as a libation or offering to bless the fields for the coming spring and to ward off evil.

Like many practices devoted to the defense against evil, Wassailing has always been seen as a festive activity and has always been associated with partying and making merry.

In the last couple of hundred years Wassailing has been more about good cheer and well wishing than the blessing of the crops although the practice of “tree blessing’ has seen something of a revival in rural areas. These days it is sometimes accompanied by a bonfire party and the firing of guns.

The actual ingredients in a traditional Wassail bowl are widely disputed.  This could be attributed to the fact that festive bands of people who traveled from home to home would often replenish their Wassail bowl with whatever was available. While one home might offer apple cider or ale another might have mulled wine or even spirits. Needless to say, after an hour or two of enthusiastic Wassailing most Wassailers were not particularly picky!

Wassail was sometimes called “lamb’s wool” due to its frothy appearance. Pieces of toast were floated in the drink to give it extra flavor, and it was considered a sign of good luck to find one in your own cup. This is thought to explain the origins of “toasting” someone today.

Alcohol definitely played a major part in Wassailing’s history, but some argue it is not essential. They (somewhat unconvincingly) claim the continuance of the custom has little to do with the drink and is all about the good will and friendship that Wassailing generates.

While interpretations of Wassailing differ, the concept clearly lives on both in spirit and practice. As ever, the Oxford English Dictionary provides the most inclusive definition – “Make merry with much alcohol” – an activity to which a great many of us can aspire this festive season.  A tasty Wassail recipe follows (minus the toast…)

A happy Wassail to you all.

A Traditional Shropshire Wassail Recipe – for hardened Wassailers!

10 very small apples

1 large orange stuck with whole cloves

10 teaspoons honey

2 bottles dry sherry or dry Madeira

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground ginger

3 cloves

3 allspice berries

2 or 3 cinnamon sticks

2 cups castor (superfine) sugar

12 to 20 pints of cider according to the number of guests

1 cup (or as much as you like) brandy

Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of honey. Place in a baking pan and cover the bottom with 1/8-inch of water.

Insert cloves into the orange about 1/2″ apart.

Bake the orange with the apples in a 350° oven.

After about 30 minutes, remove the orange and puncture it in several places with a fork or an ice pick.

Combine the sherry or Madeira, cider, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar, apple and orange juice and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat slowly without letting the mixture come to a boil.

Leave on very low heat.

Strain the wine mixture and add the brandy.

Pour into a metal punch bowl, float the apples and orange on top and ladle hot into punch cups.

Makes enough for 15-20 people

3 thoughts on “Holidays With Honey – What The H—- Is A Wassail?

  1. emmalina73 says:

    We are hoping to begin planting our orchard this spring so we’ll be wassailing next solstice!

  2. […] Holidays With Honey – What The H – – Is A Wassail? ( […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s