Wassail

Christmas celebrated by people playing instruments, eating a Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Engraving by T. Hollis after R.W. Buss.
  • Base Spirit Cider
  • Preparation Punch
  • Flavor Holiday Flavors
  • Served Hot

Wassail is a cider based holiday punch with a fascinating history. The name derived from an ancient Anglo-Saxon greeting, “Wæs þu hæl” meaning, “be thou hale” which in modern English means, “be in good health.” Protocol dictates that one respond Drinc hæl which basically translates to “Drink to health.”

Originally, wassailing began in England and Scotland as the superstitious practice of of visiting orchards to sing to the trees and spirits in the hopes of procuring a good harvest the following season. During the rite, peoplehood pass a wooden bowl to each other. Upon receiving the bowl, one lifted it above their head, exclaimed, “Wassail!” and then took a hearty sip.

By the Renaissance, Englishmen would also go wassailing in cities. Poor crowds would list the grand homes of aristocrats and sing in exchange for for and drink. In reality, the mob basically scared the crap out of the wealthy aristocrats. The rich plied the visitors with booze and food in an attempt to push them out of the house before they started helping themselves (which was not uncommon.)

19th Century Wassailing

One seasonal treat handed over was the figgy pudding of song. In the context of this mob, the lyrics of the holiday favorite, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” take on a new, threatening meaning. “Now bring us some figgy pudding, Now bring us some figgy pudding, And we won’t go until we’ve got some, We won’t go until we’ve got some, So bring some out here.”

When England began colonizing North America, the wassailing tradition was also exported to the New World—sort of. The settlers bought the traditions of the bowl and the verbiage, but toned down the proceedings. Most began busting out the bowl for parties held in house as opposed to a traveling affair. The punch, itself, became known as wassail.

By the early 20th century, wassailing was all but replaced by caroling in both America and England. Cisiting trees and manor houses yielded to visiting friends and family. In England, orchard wassailing has undergone a cult resurgence as a hip adventure of sort, but the practice is far from mainstream. Still, the drink is delicious.

A full history can be read here.

The following is a modern take from Nick Detrich.

Print Recipe
Wassail
Servings
Ingredients
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients in a large pot.
  2. Simmer for about an hour.
  3. Strain and serve in small punch glasses.
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