Here We Come A-What-Ing? Unveiling Wassailing for the Holidays

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By: Claire Wang

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

Confession: When I first heard the traditional holiday song "Here We Come A-Wassailing," the first stanza sounded a lot to me like "here we come a-waffling among the leaves so green." In my defense, I was only six years old, and the word "wassail" would not enter my vocabulary until many years later when I read Beowulf. (Other listeners have misheard the lyrics as "here we come a-rustling among the leaves so green," which makes more sense than my first interpretation.)

Even when I finally got the lyrics right, I had assumed that "wassail" was a generic term for eggnog and various punches served at holiday parties. Its origins, however, are more complex: The term is both a noun and a verb, and can refer to spiced ale/mulled wine, or the act of reveling and singing carols from house to house at Christmas. Speaking of Beowulf, it turns out that the earliest mention of wassail in English literature is found in this eighth-century poem. The word stems from a combination of the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English vas hal, which means "be of good health" or "be fortunate." According to the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, wassail evolved from the Middle English terms for "be well." beowulf heaney

Over time wassail morphed into a drinking salute, as well as the word for drinks used in the toast. The earliest form of wassail—spiced wine made with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg—was a luxury as all the ingredients were imported to England. When ales became more widely available, families would concoct their own recipes using whatever spice combinations they could afford.

All this hearty wassailing prompted the creation of a special drinking vessel dedicated to the purpose. As of the thirteenth century, carousers would dip cakes and bread into a Wassail bowl. The Encyclopedia of Food and Culture claims that "[wassail] is shared as a loving cup passed from one person to the next so that each can share its contents in a companionable way." Other traditions hold that masters of the house would prepare eggnog, which they would then offer to servants on Christmas. It was not uncommon—even in nineteenth-century America—for caroling strangers to carry wassail bowls door to door in return for money. If you’re curious to know what a traditional wassail bowl looks like, here is a seventeenth-century example from the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; as you can see, it looks more like a chalice or goblet than an actual "bowl." Even today, some traditionalists—in a nod to the practice of dipping bread in alcohol—will float toasted bread slices in their punch bowls. (Ever wonder why we refer to drinking salutations as "toasts?")

Encyclopedia of Food and CultureCecil Hunt describes another curious custom involving wassail and the Twelfth Night celebration (i.e. January 5th) in British Customs and Ceremonies: When, Where, and Why. He writes: "In parts of the west country [of England] the custom persists of wassailing the apple trees, particularly in the cider-apple orchards. Cider or beer is poured over the roots and cake soaked in cider is placed in the branches. Traditional songs are sung, urging the fertility of the trees, as in the days of pagan rites. Cider is also indulged in by the wassailers."

Recipes for holiday punches or wassail are innumerable, so there are plenty of variations to suit anyone’s palate—whether you prefer alcohol or not. If you’re looking for other menu ideas, there’s plenty of time to visit the Pratt Library to check out our selection of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa cookbooks. I haven’t yet decided what I’m planning to cook for the holiday, but I can promise that it won’t involve dunking toast in eggnog or watering my Christmas tree with a nice pint of Guinness.

Another wonderful post, Claire! Bonus points for including a Kate Rusby song!
Posted by: Tom Warner at 12/21/2012 10:17 a.m.

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