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Here We Go a Wassailing

A brief history of wassail and wassailing to greet, serve and celebrate houseguests this holiday season. 

by Andrew J. Avery

For many, the making and drinking of wassail is a delicious holiday tradition. The combination of warm apple cider, cinnamon and spirits satisfies many of our holiday beverage cravings. Readers may be surprised to find, however, that by doing so they are imbibing centuries of yuletide tradition. Drinking wassail and wassailing date back to England in the Middle Ages and remain one of our oldest holiday traditions. The context in which we drink wassail has changed drastically. Whilst reading this piece, I encourage readers to contemplate bringing some of the older traditions associated with wassail and wassailing back into practice this holiday season.

The fundamental recipe for wassail has changed relatively little since the Middle Ages. It’s always been served warm and included some type of alcohol, usually wine or ale. Spices, honey, fruit slices or an egg have also been part of the mixture over the centuries.

Get a wassail recipe from Virginia Distillery Co. here.

The noun form of wassail first appeared, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1275 A.D. and its verb form 25 years later. Some historians believe that the practice began sometime around 600 A.D. Etymologically speaking, the word “wassail” stems from Middle English and Old Norse. Originally, wassail served as a greeting when presenting a cup of wine to a friend or guest or as a toast to someone’s health. In one word you could welcome, serve and celebrate your guest. This year you may wish to skip all of the cumbersome, over-enthusiastic greetings and chit-chat and elect instead to greet all of your holiday party guests with a cup of holiday spirit(s) and a cry of “Wassail!” Although this word and your shouting it may prove confusing to guests, the joyous and hardy tone with which you scream it should serve you well in the end.

Better still, go wassailing. There are two main ways in which people went wassailing. The first served as a predecessor to modern day caroling. During the Middle Ages, peasants and their feudal lords would wassail in a show of good cheer to each other. This was usually celebrated on Twelfth Night, which falls on January 5 or 6. Peasants sang to their lord and he would give food and drink to them. At that time, wassail was served in a large bowl topped with slices of toast, known as “sops.” Sometimes revelers would adapt more of a hostile tone and wouldn’t leave unless they were given wassail or other culinary gifts. Evidence of this can still be seen in the lyrics of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
So bring it right here

You may have always wondered what was meant by “We won’t go until we’ve get some” and why it was you were demanding figgy pudding so adamantly. This type of wassailing seems harder to implement in this day and age, but I think there are some possibilities. Simply pick an individual who exercises great influence in your life, such as a boss or landlord. Show up on their doorstep and begin to politely, yet firmly demanding food and booze in the form of holiday song. Results may be mixed. I cannot guarantee that you will receive any free wassail or figgy pudding.

For those of you who are apple farmers, live near an apple orchard, or are just heavily invested in the outcome of the apple harvest, you might try the second form of wassailing. In the apple and cider producing regions of southeast England, young men would take their wassail bowls to orchards to bless the trees to ensure a good harvest. The men poured wassail onto the tree roots or laid sops upon them. This tradition has evolved over time into a more intricate and noisier one. Nowadays, a wassail king and queen lead a group of farmers and villagers from orchard to orchard singing, shooting shotguns, banging pots and pans and yelling so as to scare off evil demons and awaken the spirits of the trees. The procession stops in every orchard to circle around the largest tree, sing to it, and place sops on its branches. Merrymakers then drink to the health of the tree and pass round the wassail bowl.

So, come Twelfth Night, grab a bucket of wassail and drive out to an orchard to do your part to ensure a good harvest. Potential wassailers may wish, however, to ask permission from the farmer before rollicking on their property in the dead of night.

No matter how you choose to serve your wassail this holiday, keep in mind that you are carrying on a well-honored tradition that centers on celebrating each other and the time of season.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Distillery Co

Andrew J. Avery is a History Ph.D student at the University of Kansas and is originally from Kentucky. 

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1 COMMENT
  • B.Councill / January 20, 2017

    So nice to read about an enduring Anglo-Saxon tradition . My family on both sides were colonists, so we hold strong to any remaining recognition of traditions that remain .

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