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Wassailing Away

by Gael Stirler

Here we come a-wassailing
among the leaves so green
Here we come a-dancing
so fair to be seen!
Love and Joy come to you
and to you your wassail, too!
And God rest you and bring you a Happy New Year
And God bring you a Happy New Year!

Like many lasting customs, wassailing is associated with an ancient legend. A beautiful Saxon princess named Rowena offered Prince Vortigen a bowl of wine while toasting him with the phrase, “Waes hael,” which is an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning “good health.”

In Saxon times you would have said “Waes hael,” not “Waaassup,” to greet or say goodbye to somebody; it literally meant, “be in good health.” By the 12th century, “Waes hael” had become the salutation one offered as a toast, to which the standard reply was, “drinc hail”, “drink to your good health.” (“Hail” is an older form of our modern word “hale,” meaning “health or well-being” and is closely related to our word “hail” meaning “to salute, greet, or welcome.”) Eventually, the word came to be associated with the alcoholic beverage used for toasting, especially the spiced ale or mulled cider that was drunk on Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night.


If you are having a traditional holiday party and want to incorporate this custom, here is the old way to share wassail. While everyone is gathered, shout "Wassail!" before sipping from a large, festively decorated cup. Then pass the cup to your neighbor. That person replies "Drinkhail," to you and takes a sip. He shouts "Wassail!" to the next person, and passes the cup along, giving a kiss to the recipient who says, "Drinkhail!" Though pre-dating Christianity, this kind of cup sharing custom later became known as "the loving cup" in Christian circles. Unlike the church custom, traditional wassail toasting could get very rowdy and flirty. If you don't wish to drink from the communal cup when offered, you may drink from your own cup and pass the wassail cup with a kiss. If you don't want to be kissed on the mouth, turn your cheek or offer your hand.

The kissing tradition known as "Cloven fruit" probably originated from the wassail bowl fruits which were studded with cloves. In this game someone starts by inserting cloves into a lemon, orange, apple, or pear. Then he offers a cloven fruit to a woman he fancies. If she accepts, she is indicating her willingness to be kissed. If she pulls out a clove with her fingers, she wants to be kissed on the hand. If she pulls one out with her teeth, she wants to be kissed on her lips. After she receives her kiss she is free to offer the cloven fruit to anyone other that one who offered it to her.

Wassail is also a tradition of blessing the crops especially fruit-bearing trees. Wassailers would gather after dark in the orchard and choose the most imposing tree to represent the whole orchard. A young lad would scale the tree and sit in the branches to represent the spirit of the tree. He would be offered gifts of bread, cheese, and cider. Then wassailers sang orchard blessing songs, put bread soaked in cider in the crook of the tree trunk, and poured wassail on the roots of the tree. This would be followed with bells, gunfire, horn-blowing, and other noise to frighten away malevolent spirits and awaken the trees from winter slumber. In Sussex this was called "howling" the orchard.

Another wassail tradition sounds like "Trick or Treat" for grown ups and calls for a group of caroling revelers to carry a pitcher or bowl, festooned with ribbons, from house to house, where they sing and offer the homeowner a cup. At each home the revelers are treated with a refill of their the vessel. This hodgepodge cocktail of varied ingredients may be the reason there is such a diversity of wassail recipes and the origin of frat parties. Here are three Wassail recipes based on cider, ale, rum, and wine for your holiday fare!

Spiced Cider Wassail Bowl

Pre-heating the punch bowl reduce the thermal shock on the bowl and keep the wassail from cooling too fast.

  • 2 quarts apple cider
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • juice of 4 lemons
  • 6 cinnamon sticks
  • 12 whole cloves
  • 12 whole allspice
  • 1 ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 fifths (or liters) dry sherry
  • Garnish of orange and lemon slices

Combine juices, sugar and spices in pot. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer 20 minutes. Remove spices and add sherry. Heat until just below boiling. Meanwhile, heat water in a tea kettle. Fill a punch bowl with the boiling water. Let stand one minute, then empty carefully. Immediately fill the punch bowl with wassail and garnish with floating orange or lemon slices, studded with cloves. (Serves 8-12)

Ye Olde Ale Wassail

Make serving your wassail a showy affair with songs and noise and holiday flair.

  • 1 quart ale (or beer if you must)
  • 1 quart rum or brandy
  • nutmeg
  • ginger
  • grated lemon peel
  • 3 eggs
  • 4 oz powdered sugar

Heat ale to almost boiling with spices. Beat eggs with sugar while ale is heating up. Combine whipped eggs and hot ale in a large pitcher. Put rum or brandy into another large pitcher and pour from one to another until mixed well. Then pour into a holiday wreathed wassail bowl (or punch bowl). Best served hot! (Serves 8)

Fireside Christmas Wassail

This can be cooked in a dutch oven sitting on the hearth with the fire blazing.

  • 4 cups brown ale
  • 1 cup dry sherry or dry white wine
  • 3 oz brown sugar
  • 4 apples
  • cloves
  • peel of ½ lemon
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger

Wash the apples and peel them just around their waists and stud with a few cloves. Place the apples, brown sugar, and 4 tbsp of the brown ale into a 3-quart or larger dutch oven. Cover and bake in the oven at 350° F for 25 minutes or place one foot from the fire in an open fireplace and simmer until the apples are tender. Remove the apples to a plate and add the remaining ale, sherry or wine to the dutch oven. Stir in the lemon peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger and let simmer for a few more minutes. Put the apples back in the wassail and serve warm. (Serves 4)

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