Wassailing?

Donna Easto, C.H., H.C., M.H.,
Certified Herbal Consultant

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

 REFRAIN:
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

It’s an old familiar Christmas song. I’ve sung it many times, but recently a thought struck me – what the heck does “Here we come a-wassailing” mean? We’re familiar with the image of a steaming wassail bowl filled with hot ale and floating apples. I’m especially fond of the bowl featured in the 1951 film version of “Scrooge” (the one with Alistair Sim that was released as “A Christmas Carol” for the U.S. audience.)  But, what does it all have to do with going              a-wassailing, and what does it mean to wish love and joy to your wassail too?

Wassailing was and is still being celebrated on Twelfth night, January 5th or more traditionally on the 17th as it was before the arrival of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. There are two distinct versions of wassailing. The first involves going house to house, wassail bowl in hand, singing, sharing a drink from the bowl and generally having a jolly time. The wassail is a blessing to your home and family. The second is still practiced in some of England’s rural areas, mainly where fruit is grown. It’s the trees that are blessed.  

To encourage fertility, farmers wassail their animals and crops, particularly apple orchards. Singing, toasting to the trees’ health and placing cider-soaked bread into the branches or splashing the trees with cider is done to ward off evil spirits and ensure a fruitful harvest. It sounds like great fun! A Wassail Queen and King lead a noisy parade from orchard to orchard. The revelers gather around the best-looking tree while singing, “Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee, Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow, Hat fulls, cup fulls, three cornered sacks fills…” The rowdies then move on making as much noise as possible to wake the tree spirits and scare away any demons lurking in the darkness.

If you’re thinking of trying a little socially distanced wassailing yourself, here’s an old recipe for Wassail:  

Ingredients:  18 cups brown ale; 2 cups dark brown sugar; 6 cooking apples; 1 cinnamon stick; 1 tsp grated fresh nutmeg; 1 tsp ground ginger; 10 cardamom pods, cracked; 1 ¼ cups sweet white wine (substitute sweet apple cider in place of ale and wine for an alcohol-free version) Method: core and peel apples, bake at 275F until soft, cut into small pieces and keep warm. While the apples are baking, heat the ale gently with the rest of the ingredients. Leave to infuse on low heat for half an hour. Remove cardamom pods and cinnamon stick, pour into an earthenware bowl and top with the apple pieces.  The first person to drink toasts “WAES HAEL!” an old Saxon phrase meaning “GOOD HEALTH!”

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