Wednesday, January 4, 2012


It would be most remiss of me if I did not include a post on wassailing during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The word wassail itself comes from the Old English phrase waes hael*, which is loosely translated into be in health. The phrase would be used rather formally, when presenting a cup of mulled ale, or wine, and the correct response was, drinc hael, or drink in health.

There are actually a couple tradition attached to wassailing, and both are quite old. It was customary for the great houses to serve their guest strong, spiced drink during Christmastide. The wassail was usually served from a great bowl, made especially for that purpose, the forerunner of our punch bowls. Usually, it was wine they were serving, spiked with lemons, oranges, and a variety of spices. The ordinary folk made do with the far older spiced ale, and would take the wassail about the orchard, encouraging the barren trees to be strong and fruitful when the spring came again, then pouring the drink onto the roots. This was generally accompanied by singing, and when the orchard had been properly encouraged, the fold would retired to their homes and drink wassail themselves. Eventually the two tradition merged, so to speak, and eventually developed into the custom of carolling from door to door, the singers being treated to a drink for their efforts.

While the tradition of wassailing was not necessarily restricted to the Christmas season - it could be practiced any time after the harvest, and before the trees began to bud out again - it has always been strongly associated with it, especially between New Year's Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany. Below is a clip of The Yorkshire Wassail:

And here are the words to one of the oldest wassail songs:

Wassail, wassail, sing we
In worship of Christ’s nativity.

Now joy be to the Trinity,
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
That one God is in Trinity,
Father of heaven, of mightes most.

And joy to the Virgin pure
That ever kept her undefiled
Grounded in grace, in heart full sure,
And bare a child as maiden mild.

Bethlehem and the star so shen,
That shone three kinges for to guide,
Bear witness of this maiden clean;
The kinges three offered that tide.

And shepherds heard, as written is,
The joyful song that there was sung:
Gloria in excelsis!
With angel’s voice it was out rung.

Now joy be to the blessedful child,
And joy be to his mother dear;
Joy we all of that maiden mild,
And joy have they that make good cheer.

Wassail, wassail, wassail, sing we
In worship of Christ’s nativity

And here, since one can never have too much of a good thing, is a recipe for brewing wassail:

10 very small apples
1 large orange stuck with whole cloves
10 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bottles dry red wine
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cloves3 allspice berries
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
2 cups extra fine 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 brown sugar. 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 red wine, 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.

Simmer on very low heat for 15 minutes. 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

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