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:

Red wine

Dry sherry


Cloves (and other spices as preferred)



Toasted bread

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!





  1. The SAGE encyclopedia of alcohol: social, cultural and historical perspectives:  edited by Scott C Martin
  1. The Williamsburg Cookbook


8 thoughts on “Wassail

  1. Jeff

    Hello Bala, thank you for this, so enjoyed learning some of the history behind Wassail - I have wondered for years what exactly it means, but never got around to finding out. I especially like the thought of seeking to "be whole," something we can all try to turn our hearts and minds to as we enter a new year. And I am especially grateful to have shared a glass of wassail this holiday. I hope you don't mind that I am going to share a link here to a musical version of "Wassail, Wassail" that always comes to mind - I love this version because it feels a bit like being in Old England, and feels so joyous and celebratory:


    And now I will always think of this lovely tradition as well. Thank you so much and Happy New Year! Was hael!

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Dear Jeff: Thank you for your very kind reply. And, thank you for the wonderful rendition of wassail - I liked it very much! It does help transport to another time. Happy New Year! Was hael!

  2. nirmala

    The elements in the drink is interesting. The warm drink must be very comforting. Raising a toast to you 'Wassail'

  3. Bala

    Post author

    Facebook comment from reader, Champa Venkatachalam:

    Happy to be whole! Wow wassaill So simple so much search so much depth.Thank you!
    Yes for Pongal it is the paddy honored with all the native vegetables: pumpkin, yam, avarakkai, brinjal, coconut and of course doused in tamarind juice and red chilly powder, offered to Lord Surya.
    Let me not forget the special jaggery rice.

  4. Bala

    Post author

    Facebook comment from reader, Aruna Vedula:

    No matter what the occasion or celebration the first thought that comes to mind is, what are we going cook?Stories around food are fascinating.


I look forward to reading your thoughts...