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.
We all know the song, as familiar as nearly any other holiday song. And while I often happily sing along to songs that I have no idea what they mean (or perhaps I’m just singing all the wrong words – a post for another time), this one made me pause. I’m coming a-what? And we’re wishing it love and joy?
Wassailing is the practice of thanking the deity of the apple orchards to encourage fertility and ensure next year’s crop. The term wassail probably comes from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hal meaning to “be in good health.” It was originally used as a greeting but became so integrated into drinking rituals in England that the invading Normans who arrived in 1066 thought it was a toast distinctive to the island. Wassail also came to mean the drink used for the toast, which was usually a spiced wine known as Renwein. Because the wine and the spices had to be imported, it was a precious commodity among early English families. Recipes varied among families based on who could afford which ingredients. Later, beer became an acceptable and widely used wassail.
Wassailing became an important practice (and the seeming social event of the season) in cider growing areas of England at least as far back as the 18th century. Held on the eve of Twelfth Night in early January, revelers placed a jug of cider or a piece of cider-soaked bread or cake on the biggest apple tree to honor the gods. In other places, trees are sprinkled with cider. A chant or song nearly always accompanied the offering, and the ceremony generally concluded with the banging of pots and kettles, the firing of guns, and the blowing of horns. These noises were either intended to awake the tree gods or to scare away evil spirits – or maybe a little bit of both. Some people still celebrate today.
So next time you hear the song, bless the apple trees for the coming of spring and maybe make yourself some wassail to ward off evil spirits.
Recipes for wassail vary widely, and can have a base of beer, wine, or cider. This recipe is based on a Tudor concoction.
10 small apples
10 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bottles dry sherry or dry Madeira
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 allspice berries
1 stick cinnamon
2 cups superfine sugar
1/2 cup water
6 eggs, separated
1 cup brandy
Heat oven to 350°F. Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and fill the bottom with 1/8-inch of water. Bake for 30 minutes or until tender. Set aside.
Combine the sherry or Madeira, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar, and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat without letting the mixture come to a boil. Leave on very low heat.
Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks until light and lemon-colored. Beat the whites until stiff and fold them into the yolks. Strain the wine mixture and add gradually to the eggs, stirring constantly. Add the brandy. Pour into a metal punch bowl and float the apples on top. Makes about 10 servings.