The History of Wassail

Wassail is my favorite holiday treat, and, as a musician, one of my favorite holiday traditions because of the beautiful music passed down to us from Christmases past.  The etymology of wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon "waes hael", meaning "good health".  It was a friendly toast.  There are two different winter social activities associated with Wassail, (henceforth "Wassailing").  Both originate from England, one of secular origins and one Pagan.  And both were accompanied by a warm, alchoholic beverage made of spiced cider that came to be known by the same name.

Pagan Wassailing was a ritual performed by the youth.  They would take a large bowl of wassail to the apple orchards pour a libation on the tree roots.  Then they would sing to the good health of the trees, hoping for a good crop in the upcoming year.  In different times and settings, the day for this varied.  For some it was on 12th night (January 5th).  For others, it would be Christmas Eve, and for others, as early as December 17th, the solstice according to some old calendars.

Secular Wassailing was a special kind of caroling.  The Wassailers would bring a large bowl of wassail to the home of a nobleman, sing and/or perform, and offer them a glass of wassail.  In return, the wealthy were expected to give holiday treats to "us poor trav'lers a trav'lin' in the mire".  ("So bring us some figgy pudding... we won't go until we get some!").  Being familiar with this tradition makes sense of SO MANY old Christmas carols!  Wassailing was similar to Mumming, which was similar, except that instead of bringing Wassail, the performers would disguise themselves in costumes and perform a skit for the nobles.  Often the leader of these troups was dressed as Father Christmas himself.  The expected treat was the same.  Incidentally, Mumming was very likely the inspiration behind trick-or-treating.

Making Wassail is very easy and fast if you have a pressure cooker, but if you only have a slow cooker, the only difference is it's easy and, well, slow.  It doesn't require a specific recipe any more than punch doesn't require specific mixtures of different juices.  

Here's what I use to make wassail in my instant pot (pictured with minimal juice for illustration purposes):

Fresh Ginger
Cinnamon Sticks
Whole Cloves
Vanilla
Nutmeg
Apple Juice
Orange Juice (Or sometimes a juice blend like Apple-Cranberry or Apple-Cherry)

First I peel a thumb-lengthed piece of ginger and cut into dice-sized chunks.  If there family members feeling unwell, I will double the ginger to add to it's medicinal properties.  Then I add 4-6 4" cinnamon sticks, a few cloves, sprinkle in a bit of nutmeg, and add my apple juice.  You can either put these ingredients in a metal colander like this one (we just bent up the handles to make it fit), or strain the drink after cooking.  I use a colander and fill with juice just below the top line.  Then I cook on high pressure for 12 minutes (if using a slow cooker, 4-6 hours is ideal).  Sometimes I use the quick release for the heavenly aromas it gives my kitchen, but if the pot is too full, it will spit, in which case the slow release is better.  Then I pull my colander out and fill the rest of the instant pot with more juice to help cool it faster for consumption.  For my family, it will still be a little too hot, so we also have ice handy.  My Grandpa Stringham called them "magic crystals", which would help cool your soup or hot drinks, and we love calling it that.  Sometimes my husband and I spike our own wassail with hard cider for a more authentic "adult" treat, but generally, we just drink it as is.

For more information:  https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Wassailing/
https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/wassailing.shtml
https://talesofthecocktail.org/history/history-wassail-punch/ (<---- this one requires a birthdate proving you are of drinking age in your country.  It's a little less family-friendly than the other two, but still very interesting!)

Christmas History Advent Calendar


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