Wassailing Through

Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.

A foot of snow presses against the front door, the presents glimmer under the Christmas tree, and Aunt Lillie’s sugar cookies lie temptingly in the old painted tin box.

And the Wassail punch simmers slowly on the stove, the fragrance of cinnamon wafting through the house.

On a dark, cold winter night, when something visceral stirs like a tiny claw scratching at the wall, a cup of this bright and warm and soothing drink is in order. To banish the darkness away.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, supposedly explains the origin of the toast:

While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is ‘drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”

The early settlers of Virginia brought many, many culinary customs with them from Britain, including punches at Christmas, yet no one recorded the practice of the “waes haeil” bowl. Ironically, when the Bishop of Aberdeen visited Virginia in 1927, he wrote the following:

These dear Virginians! They are not Americans at all. They are just old fashioned English folk. One keeps wondering what on earth they are doing here. This is old England, old England at its best and kindliest … Everywhere flow the wassail bowls of that seductive Christmas beverage, “egg nog” which in spite of the Volstead Act [Prohibition], surely contains more potent ingredients than whipped eggs and cream.  (From a 1927 newspaper clipping, Valentine Museum, Richmond)

There is a traditional custom with deep pagan roots, still practiced in some areas of the west of England — where a group of wassailers enters an orchard, chooses a tree to symbolize the entire orchard, and pours a little hard cider at the base of a tree, to encourage fertility and a good harvest. Verification that this tree wassailing took place in more remote times comes from accounts found from St. Albans dating to 1486 and Kent dating to 1586.

Here’s a recipe for Wassail, with mead:

2 cups fresh apple cider
2 large oranges, cut in half
2 whole cloves
2 large apples, unpeeled, cored and cut into wedges
4 cinnamon sticks
Pinch of nutmeg
1 small slice of peeled ginger root
¾ liter bottle of mead (750 ml.)

Orange and apple slices

Pour the cider into a large pot and add one of the orange halves with the two cloves stuck in it and squeeze the juice from the other halves into the cider. Add the apple wedges, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, and ginger slice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let steep for about an hour. Add the mead, bring to a simmer. Remove the cooked fruit, cinnamon sticks, and ginger slice. Serve hot, garnished with slices of orange and apple.

And since the season isn’t the season without music, here’s a traditional Christmas carol dating back to the Middle Ages, the Gloucestershire Wassail. The lyrics (more or less) follow.

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl , we’ll drink to thee.

Here’s to our horse, and to his right ear,
God send our master a happy new year:
A happy new year as e’er he did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

Here’s to our mare, and to her right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie;
A good Christmas pie as e’er I did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

So here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as e’er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

Here’s to our cow , and to her long tail,
God send our master us never may fail
Of a cup of good beer : I pray you draw near,
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear.

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all.

Be here any maids? I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone!
Sing hey O, maids! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


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