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December 10, 2012: Wassail, Wassail!

December 10, 2012

WassailAs Americans, we are familiar with the Christmas tradition of wassail mostly through carols passed along from our neighbors across the pond, where the wassailing traditions are the strongest. One starts:

“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…”

Even the carols themselves seem a bit archaic and quaint as most Americans have never gone “a-wassailing” nor seen, nor made, nor tasted, the beverage on which the proceedings are based.

“Wassail” is from the Old English (wase haile) meaning “good health”  and is traditionally celebrated on New Year’s Day. It is a mix of older traditions that coalesced in the Saxon period of occupation in England. Kalends, the Roman celebration of the New Year was already established after the Celts and before the Saxons. The Celts and those before them would, of course, celebrate the Winter Solstice…the returning of the sun to the world. The Saxons themselves celebrated the Wassail as a way to ward away the “dark spirits” from affecting the growth of fruit trees, particularly apples, which grew so well in England. All of this tradition simmers down through human consciousness as a desire to party at the darkest time of the year…and what better way to celebrate than to drink beer and sing songs?!!

The Ancient Rite
On New Year’s Day Saxons assembled at mid-day in an orchard. They would surround the largest tree and pour cider at its roots and put toast dipped in cider in its branches to nourish the “good spirits” taking the form of robins, thought to be the guardians of the orchard. At a pre-arranged point the people would shout “Huzzah” or bang drums or whatever, to make noise to drive the “bad spirits” away to encourage a good crop for the coming year.

Beer made a lot of sense back in Saxon times and people then drank far more beer than water, as the beer was safer. In the days before we knew about microbes, all that people knew was that water that stood around made people sick. Beer did not, because to make a proper beer you must first boil the wort (a kind of barley-tea) that makes beer. This disinfects it. Because the nutrient-rich property of beer would grow microbes much faster than water, people at first tended to drink it before it was properly aged (called green beer…and it is indeed as nasty as it sounds!) They eventually found that if they could hermetically seal the beer away from air in barrels, the beer tasted better as it aged. This had the added benefit of keeping microbes away, creating a more hygienic beverage that kept longer, while at the same time increasing the alcoholic content!

Wassail is a mostly beer, part fruit-juice with sundry spices, served warm in an ornate cup. Wooden bowls are the most traditional serving container. If you’ve got a bowl made from apple wood, this is the best! The final touch of the wassail is a topping of lightly whipped cream (just a little bit…it’s mostly a decoration.) This is to represent lambs wool. All I could find on this part of the tradition is that the drink’s nick-name is “lambs wool” in some parts of England. Recipes tend to be kinda loose with just about every facet and most say there is “no bad Wassail recipe.” I beg to differ. I made some for friends a couple of years ago that was pretty nasty. After everyone took a sip, I was left with a gallon of wassail to finish myself. Way to kill a tradition, Steve! I figured that my choice of beer had too much hops in it, which get even more bitter as you heat it. Stay with porters and other English ales and you will be OK. Stay away from the more hoppy beers like IPAs

A Wassail Recipe
Gently warm one bottle (12 Fl. Oz.) of English ale (or similar brew…I used Wachusett Winter Ale and that turned out very well) and 1/4C. apple cider (or lemon juice or pineapple juice or some combination of all) one cinnamon stick, four whole cloves, the peel of 1/4 of an orange and a few apple pieces. You want to warm the wassail, but not to boil it! Just before serving, strain the wassail into the serving bowl with a sieve. In a separate bowl, whisk a few tablespoons of cream (I used evaporated milk) until frothy and add this to the top.

Wassailing eventually turned into a social event of visiting neighbors on New Year’s Day, wassail in hand, singing songs and begging for treats for the entertainment, something like our present-day Halloween. This eventually turned into the more Victorian-age caroling..today itself, looked upon as being quaint and “old-folkey.” So traditions pass. But if you have an interest in fruit crops, old traditions, or just want a tasty warm beverage on a cold WInter’s night..try wassail! And if you then feel the urge to visit neighbors and sing a few songs…well….then, that’s what the season is all about, isn’t it?

“Wassail…wassail, all over the town.
Our cup is white and the ale is brown.
Our cup it is made of the white ashen tree,
and so is the ale of the good barley!”

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