A few weeks ago, I listened to a person from the Netherlands sing as part of the holiday festivities. The acoustics did not make it easy to listen to the lyrics, but there was a definite rhythm to the song, there was an unmistakable energy and there was a sense of celebration every time the word “wassail” was uttered. I had heard the word before in the context of singing and drinking during the holidays in colonial America. Eager to know more, I asked the singer why he chose to sing the song and what he knew of its history.
Wassail or was hael is an Old English or Saxon term that means “be whole” or “good health”, and back in history, it was accompanied by a song. Its traditions seem to be varied and seem to have evolved with time: from singing door-to-door during Christmas time with a bowl of wassail to be shared; to singing together and around apple trees, to celebrate the harvest this time of year1,2.
Method to make a drink influenced by the history of wassail1,2:
Cloves (and other spices as preferred)
Place an entire apple or two in a 375˚ F oven. As the apples roast, heat some red wine and a smaller amount of sherry in a large pan. As the mixture comes to a boil add cloves, the zest of oranges (or orange slices) and some honey. Adjust ingredients to taste, turn off heat and let the mixture steep. Toast some strips of bread in butter. As the baking apple starts to caramelize slightly, bring the wine mixture to a boil again and strain the hot mixture into glass cups, remove hot roasted apples from the oven and add some to the wine mixture, top with some toasted bread and serve.
I’ve often witnessed my grandmother’s excitement as she celebrates fruits and vegetables in India, including occasions where people gathered outdoors around food prepared from a vegetable to thank the plant and the elements that supported its growth. I’m reminded of those celebrations in the east as I listen to the wassail song and think about its western history.
Happy New Year!
- The SAGE encyclopedia of alcohol: social, cultural and historical perspectives: edited by Scott C Martin
- The Williamsburg Cookbook