Gather ’round the Wassail bowl

The word “wassail” has been in the English language since at least the 8th century, when it was used in the ancient poem, Beowulf. The tradition of offering a wassail bowl to one’s guests continues today as many of us celebrate Christmas with our own special recipes for this delicious hot punch. L.D. Bennett photo

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Old English Wassail Carol
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,
And God send you
A happy new year.

Some historians believe that the tradition of drinking wassail during the early days of winter actually originated about a thousand years ago.

The word “wassail” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon greeting and toast, “waes hael,” which meant, “Be Whole,” or “Be Well.”

Originally, wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, cooked apples, curdled cream, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, eggs and sugar. 

It was served from huge, often elaborate bowls, which were the pride of silversmiths – made of silver or pewter. 

Ever since the Middle Ages, in many parts of Britain, the night of January 5 or Twelfth Night – was the time to go wassailing. 

And some people still enjoy the custom today.

The original recipe gave way to many variations of spiced cider, wine or ale complemented by roasted apples and any other available fruits.

In addition to visiting one’s neighbors with the wassail bowl or inviting family and friends to one’s home to partake of the wassail, there were those who took their wassail to their orchards.

There was an ancient custom in farming regions like Cornwall for farmers and their help to take a wassail bowl of fermented and spiced cider to the orchard to sing and toast to the apple trees.  

There would naturally have been the sharing of much good cheer among the wassailers, and before they went home, they would have shared some of the wassail with the apple trees.

By pouring a little wassail over roots of the trees the revelers hoped to ensure a good crop of apples come autumn.

Sometimes wassail-dipped bread or cake is hung from the apple trees’ branches. 

There were many wassail songs that came out of this tradition.

Historians tells us that carrying the wassail from house to house and singing the wassail songs outside the doors of the homes was the forerunner of our Christmas carols and caroling.

Rather than fading into history, it seems people want to keep this old custom alive, and the wassail traditions have made a resurgence of late.

These days there are wassail festivals in London and many towns in Britain and throughout Europe.

In America, most of us are familiar with a wassail carol or two, and almost everyone has enjoyed a cup of mulled wine or spiced cider, whether they called it wassail or not.

Wassail was served here in Marlinton at McClintic Library’s Christmas potluck dinner last week.

Paula Stemple put together the special drink, and said she was first introduced to wassail by her mother-in-law, Marietta Stemple.

Her wassail got a great reception by all in attendance.

“It’s so easy to make, and no matter what you put in it, everyone seems to like it real well,” Paula said.

She told me that she used a half gallon of apple cider and added about half a cup of sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves and orange and lemon slices.

“And it tasted good!” she laughed.

Pam Johnson agreed. 

“It had a sweet taste, but it wasn’t overpowering, it was just refreshing,” Johnson said.

“And it really tasted like Christmas.”

This time of year at my house it’s not unusual to find a crockpot or a pan on the back of the stove  filled with spiced cider ready to serve guests who come in the kitchen from being outside in the cold.  

There are as many recipes for wassail as there are cooks to prepare it.

For the base, some people use tea, some use wine, some use apple cider and some use ale.

In a pinch, you can just take a jug of cider and pour in a little orange juice, add a few cinnamon sticks and go with that.
If you have a few fresh or frozen cranberries left over from your Christmas dinner supplies, throw them in, too.

It can be that simple or as elaborate as you want to make it.

I think the key is to serve it hot and to make it a little bit spicy.

Here are two no-fail recipes that are easy and delicious.

Crock Pot Wassail

1 gallon apple cider
27 whole cloves
8 cinnamon sticks
1 quart pineapple juice
6 oz. frozen orange juice concentrate
1 Tbsp. Nestea powder (optional)

Combine all the ingredients in the crock pot. Heat on high heat until the mixture simmers – 1-2 hours – or on low heat 3 or 4 hours, depending on your crock pot.

Strain out the cloves and cinnamon sticks before serving. 

Stir in several thin orange or lemon slices, cut in half, and the wassail is ready to serve in a punch cup, tea cup or a heat-proof drink glass. 

The wassail will be happy to sit in the pot “on warm” for several hours as guests come and go – but do not let it simmer or boil as it will get too strong.

Sweet Tart Wassail

Gallon of apple cider
8 cups Cranberry Juice Cocktail
1 orange, sliced
2 to 4 Cinnamon sticks
1/2 cup of brown sugar (more or less to taste)
2 Tbsp. Honey (more or less to taste)
Place all the ingredients in a pan on medium heat until just beginning to simmer. Reduce heat to keep warm. Ladle out wassail into cups and serve warm.

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