Wassail. What an odd word! A noun, a verb, and a salutation. And, neither Greek nor Latin derived. Rather, the OED credits it’s origin to the early barbarian tribes of Europe. Most of us know the term from the classic English Christmas song, “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” However, it turns out that wassailing was a pagan rite that morphed into a very adult version of trick-or-treating and Wassail, itself, an old drink worth quaffing in modern times.
Let’s start at the beginning. The word “Wassail” is derived from an ancient 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.” Legend has it that the greetings were first changed between Renwein, a 5th century princess and King Vortigern.
Geoffrey of Monmouth describes the encounter in his 1135 book History of the Kings of Britain. “While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!’ Monmouth writes. “When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her… Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”
The first written reference to Wassail actually popped up a few centuries after Renwein in Beowulf. In the poem, it is again not a drink, but a salute to its warriors. The 10th century epic poem’s anonymous author wrote, “The rider sleepeth, the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds, in courts no wassail, as once was heard.”
In the context of Beowulf, a wassail is still referencing a toast word–an absent act of joy, not a drink or an act. However, wassailing was already well entrenched in rural communities at that point in history. Although some scholars posit that wassailing can be traced back to ancient Rome, definitive proof does not exist. What is certain is that wassailing was a popular pagan tradition across England and Scotland lasting from roughly the Battle of Hastings until the Renaissance.
Traditionally, people would decorate themselves in colorful costumes replete with feathers and face paint and then head to the apple orchards around dusk. The assembled would adorn the trees with toast points to attract robins (believed to carry good spirits), make loud noises to scare off the evil spirits, and drink from a communal, passed wooden punch bowl. Upon receiving the bowl (a.k.a. The Loving Cup), one would lift it above their head, exclaim “Wassail!” and drink it. After procuring a good buzz, the group would sing to the trees.
“Here’s to thee, old apple tree, Whence thou mayst bud, And whence thou mayst blow!” begged one popular song from Sussex. “And whence thou mayst bear apples enow! Hats full! Caps full! Bushel–bushel–sacks full, And my pockets full too! Huzza!”
The goal was to invoke the spirits and ensure a good harvest the following season. The whole affair typically went down on November 1 a.k.a. “Lamaes Abhal” or “Day of the Apples” according to Abram Smythe Palmer’s oft-overlooked 1882 classic, Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions Or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning. Palmer explains Lamaes Abhal eventually became bastardized into “lamasool” which in turn, became known as Lambs-wool by the 16th century.
Lambs-wool evolved into much more than a day, it was also the name for the drink in the bowl. In 1597, one of the earliest written mentions, Gerarde described “the pulpe of roasted apples [combined with sugar and baking spices] mixed in a wine quart of faire water, labored together until it comes to be as Apples and Ale, which were call Lamb’s Wool… doth in one night cure… the strangurie.”
A Wolf in Lamb’s Wool?
Indeed, there was also plenty of strangurie to cure in the city and grand manors, and by the Renaissance, wassailing and Lamb’s Wool had moved out of the orchard and into downtown. City-folk being city-folk, felt obliged to put their own spin on the tradition. Since there weren’t too many apple orchards in downtown London, they cut the tree part out of the equation and moved the date to incorporate wassailing into Christmas season. Another pagan derived holiday, the Twelfth Night on January 6th became the anointed evening for wassailing.
Groups of poor workers would gather (basically as a holiday mob) and travel house to house with their wassail punch bowl. Theoretically, they visited wealthier neighbors and bosses, trading some seasonal songs for a refilled punch bowl. 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.)
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 traveling affairs. Subsequently, the tradition of holiday punches gained a permanent place in Yule time revelry. The Lambs Wool name, itself, was gradually was lost to the ages and the punch instead became known as “wassail.” Others turned to more family friendly caroling events.
In fact, by the early 20th century, wassailing was all but replaced by caroling in both America and England. Magical trees and manor houses yielded to visiting friends and family. In England, orchard wassailing has undergone a cult resurgence as a hipster adventure of sorts, but the practice is far from mainstream.
Still, if you feel inspired, here a couple recipes to fill your Loving Cup. The drink is perfect to carry to trees or just entertain your holiday guests. Check out a traditional recipe from Nick Detrich followed by a summer twist on wassail created by Chris Hannah and Ms. Franky Marshall.
Nick Detrich’s fairly classic take on wassail–with a Basque twist.
- Combine all ingredients in a large pot.
- Simmer for about an hour.
- Strain and serve in small punch glasses.
An updated version of an old classic created by Chris Hannah and Franky Marshall for their Dynamic Duo event at Tales of the Cocktail 2016.
- Combine ingredients with ice in a shaker.
- Shake. Double strain into a Double Old Fashioned glass.
- Add large format ice and garnish with a cinnamon stick.