Login  /  Register  | 3 premium articles left before you must register.

Wassail - the libation of celebration - has a storied history

By Daniel Trafford

Published November 13. 2013 4:00AM
Renee Trafford
So, if you wish to try something new by indulging in an ancient tradition, serve up some wassail this Christmas or Thanksgiving or anytime cider is plentiful. Add a little brandy to the drink to increase the merriment.

Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green

Here we come a wand-ring so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you, your wassail too

And God bless you and send you a happy new year!

After Ebenezer Scrooge had finished his palaver with his visitors from another world (and made amends with the inhabitants of this one), one task remained him: to improve relations with his clerk.

So at the very end of "A Christmas Carol," he does just that, telling Bob Cratchit he will raise his salary and endeavor to assist his struggling family. He tells the poor clerk, "we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!"

To those of you not from the early Victorian era, this may seem a strange phrase, but allow me to allay your fears: no princes of the church were harmed in Dickens' everlasting tale of redemption, for even Anglicans frown on setting their clerics ablaze.

No, what Scrooge was referring to was that ubiquitous English Christmas drink: Wassail.

We've all heard of it from the Christmas carol. References abound in popular culture. The characters even go a-wassailing in an episode of "Family Guy." But what exactly is it?

Well, it's hard to find the one true recipe for wassail. It's so old that even the ancients probably couldn't decide on what to put in it, with each chief believing his version was the best. But the consensus is that it's a hot mulled cider or mead and has to include cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and an apple or orange thrown in for good measure.

So how old is it?

In the ancient epic poem, "Beowulf," the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author mentions it just after the warriors in the mead hall are slaughtered by the monster Grendel.

"Then as dawn brightened and the day broke

Grendel's powers of destruction were plain:

Their wassail was over, they wept to heaven

And mourned under morning."

As if it weren't bad enough that Grendel mercilessly butchered thirty Danes, their wassail was all gone too! Tragic!

But what truly made this drink wonderful for the English (besides its alcoholic content) was the reason for drinking it.

The term "wassail" comes from the Old English "waes hael" meaning "be you healthy." It's a toast that was uttered by the English at social functions the way the French say "A votre sante!" The sentiment was such a strong one that the beverage itself became known by the toast.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth in his entertaining "History of the Kings of Britain" written in 1135, it was the ancient Celtic warlord Vortigern who popularized the toast. As the story goes, a young handmaiden named Renwein approached the king at a banquet with a golden goblet of wine, saying, "Lavert king, was hail!"

Vortigern's reply was legendary: he leaned over to his aide and whispered, "What did she say?"

Apparently Vortigern didn't speak Old English. But once the translator explained that the girl was drinking to his health, he asked what he should reply. The aide told him to say "drinc hail." Thus the toast, "Was hail!" and its response, "Drink hail!" were born.

Initially this spicy brew was served up at harvest time in autumn to help ensure a good apple crop for the following year. Then the Christians came along, and the drink would be forever associated with the birth of Christ.

The tradition almost died out entirely when the Puritans, obsessively bent on purging the land of anything enjoyable, outlawed Christmas revelry. But since in those days as now, the law never reached the rural areas, the traditions were kept.

It was in the early 19th century when an American bumbling his way through Europe witnessed the custom and decided it needed to be shared with all the world. His name: Washington Irving.

Irving apologetically dedicated five chapters of his famous "Old Christmas Sketch Book" to English Christmas traditions, sealing them into British and American consciousness for all time.

In the book, he finds himself at Christmas dinner in an ancient English manor on Christmas day. The lord of this manor is extremely old-fashioned and determined to keep the old traditions alive. Irving was amazed at the pomp and ceremony surrounding the appearance of the wassail bowl after dinner. And even Irving wasn't 100 percent certain of what the ingredients were:

"The contents had been prepared by the Squire himself, for it was a beverage in the skillful mixture of which he particularly prided himself, alleging that it was too abstruse and complex for the comprehension of an ordinary servant."

Irving goes on to explain how the presence of this bowl was the culmination of all Yuletide festivity in the feudal manor.

"The old gentleman's whole countenance beamed with a serene look of indwelling delight, as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to his lips, with a hearty wish of a merry Christmas to all present, he sent it brimming round the board, for everyone to follow his example, according to the primitive style, pronouncing it 'the ancient fountain of good feeling, where all hearts met together.'"

Different versions of the drink — such as smoking bishop from "A Christmas Carol" — crept up here and there. Smoking bishop was so-called because the wassail bowl was shaped like a bishop's mitre. Another version was called "lamb's wool." In this drink, dark ale was whipped into a froth with roasted crabapples placed on top. The whole concoction actually resembled wool.

But it's the classic version of spiced, cider, wine or ale that has survived.

So, if you wish to try something new by indulging in an ancient tradition, serve up some wassail this Christmas or Thanksgiving or anytime cider is plentiful. Add a little brandy to the drink to increase the merriment. Add a stick of cinnamon to the drink for that feeling of ancient authenticity. Sit around the fire and read "A Christmas Carol" — or "Beowulf" — depending on whether your taste runs toward mirth or monsters.

And drink a toast to good old King Vortigern!

News by Town

Most Recent Poll
As our children crash from Halloween candy overload, we look ahead to the next big holiday: Thanksgiving. What are you looking forward to seeing on your dining room table on the 4th Thursday of November?
Cranberry sauce: Whether it's the home made stuff containing actual cranberries or the reddish jelly shaped like the can it plopped out of, it reminds me of childhood.
9%
Turkey, of course: Turkey slathered in gravy. Turkey with cranberry sauce (see above). Turkey with mashed potatoes on it. Turkey in sandwiches the next day. All I care about is the golden bird.
81%
Latkes: For the first time in 125 years, Thanksgiving falls during Hanukkah so our table will be filled with the best food both holidays have to offer. Happy Thanksgivikkah!
5%
My Thanksgiving has been completely taken over by the ever-earlier Black Friday sales. My big meal will be looking more like a fast food burger in line outside of Best Buy than the traditional sit-down meals from days of ole.
5%
Number of votes: 736

No current items found