By Sarah Pridgeon
Ever sung carols at a neighbor’s front door? Taken in the glorious scent from a glass of mulled wine? Wished someone good health for the year to come? Given to charity during the holiday season?
If you’ve done any of these things, you’ve partaken of an element of the Wassail, a Christmastime custom that dates back at least a thousand years. As with so many traditions that hail from the old world, parts of it remain and the spirit still lingers, but none of us really know why we’re doing it any more (aside from the bit where we get to drink mulled wine).
For the rich and privileged, the Wassail was once a custom that stretched right across the Twelve Days of Christmas, so it’s something we can all get started on this week. It began a toast for the dinner table and comes from the Old English words, “waes hael”, which mean, “be well”; the appropriate answer is, “drinc hael”, or “drink well”.
Back in Anglo-Saxon times, the lord of the manor would greet all who came to the New Year feast with these words, before inviting them to drink the wassail – a warmed ale, wine or cider with spices, honey and egg, all served in a giant bowl that was passed from one person to the next.
In the towns and cities, wassailing evolved into a tradition whereby groups of merrymakers would travel from one house to the next with their bowl, singing songs and offering good wishes. This is, of course, how caroling got started.
In the Middle Ages, the tradition changed once again. Now, the wassailers would sing songs to the lord of the manor and he, in return, was expected to show his goodwill by handing out money and food. This was mostly done in good fun, but you do get the impression that the peasants weren’t about to take no for an answer.
Consider, for example, the Christmas classic, “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. Lovely thought, until you get to the part that says, “now give us some figgy pudding” and then, “and we won’t go until we’ve got some”. I feel they made their thoughts pretty clear.
In the countryside, on the other hand, the wassail was yet another chance to appease the spirits of nature. You may remember me mentioning that the harvest festivals of days gone by were all about pleasing the spirits of the corn – well, the superstitious Brits felt that a little extra fawning couldn’t go amiss at midwinter.
And so they named a king and queen of the wassail, who led a noisy procession through the orchards, banging pots and pans to scare off demons napping among the leaves (possible new Christmas event for the high school, anyone?). In each orchard, they would gather around the best tree and placed a piece of toast soaked in the wassail in its branches.
Where did all this come from? Well, there’s a legend behind the tradition, as there usually is, although this one comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is best known for introducing the world to the idea of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table a millennium ago.
His book, “History of the Kings of Britain”, was on the medieval version of the New York Times bestseller list, but many think he was little more than a brazen liar. He claimed he was translating an older book that fell into his hands and it’s true that he seems to have brought together a collection of Welsh folk stories, but there’s no evidence his source material ever existed.
And thus the story that birthed the Wassail speaks of a warlord in the fifth century called Vortigern whose very existence has not been proven. Make of that what you will, I suppose.
The story goes that this scrappy king was being entertained at a royal banquet when a woman by the name of Rowena entered the room carrying a golden goblet of wine. She curtsied low and wished him “was hail” and he was struck by her beauty and grace.
He uttered “drinc hail” in return; it was clearly an auspicious beginning, as the two of them ended up wed. From that day on, it’s said that the one who drank first at a banquet always said “was hail” and the response always echoed Vortigern.
The wassail itself was made from ingredients such as mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples and eggs and served in silver or pewter bowls. It was known as “Lamb’s Wool”, because of the froth floating on the top.
And so, if you would like to bring back a little ancient goodwill to your festivities this year, bake five halved and de-cored apples in the oven for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, sprinkled with brown sugar, along with an apple studded with 15 cloves. Meanwhile, pour two quarts of apple cider and half a cup of brandy into a soup pan and heat gently without boiling.
Add a teaspoon each of ground ginger and nutmeg. Tie eight allspice sticks and two cinnamon sticks in a muslin or cheesecloth square and float it in the mixture as it warms.
Meanwhile, beat six egg yolks until light in color and six egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold the two together, then pour a half cup of your wassail mixture into them to temper.
Remove the spice sachet and pour in the eggs, then transfer to a punch bowl with the apple halves and orange floating on top. Now serve by the mug, wishing your friends and family good health, good fortune and the best of years ahead.