Wassail!

Ever wish you could reach for a more colorful word or expression that captures the spirit of the season but doesn’t make any religious assumptions or references and isn’t the now ubiquitous generic, bland, very PC, multiple-choice “Happy Holidays” that has become our safety greeting of choice?

Lo, we have Wassail! It’s archaic, but this rambunctious, hearty word — almost onomatopoeic in its lift and frothiness (and curiously pronounced “WOSS-el”, rather than the expected “wah-SAIL”) — carries all the bells and whistles of festive winter cheer, both figuratively and etymologically.

Wassail derives from an old English word for a toast or greeting meaning “be of good health” (“wes hal” – old English for “whole”, now embodied in the hale of “hale and hearty”, meaning strong and healthy).  In its more modern form it is a noun with two or three meanings: a festive occasion, or more specifically a drinking bout, and the drink — a spiced or mulled wine or ale — to be consumed on such an occasion (and originally sipped from a goblet in the wassail toast). Wassail is also an intransitive verb meaning to make merry, and to celebrate with drinking.

It’s a shame that this word — so evocative of the way so many of us celebrate the season around the world, regardless of our culture or creed — has slipped into relative obscurity and non-use, presumably falling out of fashion as its promotion of lowly, earthly, hedonistic behavior flew in the face of rising Christian values.

The English tradition of wassailing, which continues to this day and is a celebration of the New Year rather than a mark of any religious occasion, dates back probably to the 12th century, with its actual rituals and practices varying from region to region. Down in the west country of England (Hardy’s Wessex), one such example is pouring the remains of the cider kegs around trees in an orchard, dancing and singing the Wassailing song to ensure a good crop of apples for the following year. In the Midlands, wassailers go door-to-door wishing health and prosperity to householders with a wassail song, expecting in exchange a wee dram to be poured into the wassail bowl proffered. The Wassail Song, unlike other Christmas carols and true to its wassail tradition, doesn’t celebrate the nativity. Both the composer and writer of the lyrics are unknown.

Wassail Song

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.

We are not daily beggers
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors’ children
Whom you have seen before
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.

Good master and good mistress,
As you sit beside the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who wander in the mire.
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

We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.
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.

Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a cheese,
And of your Christmas loaf.
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.

God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go.
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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1Ea-fIPj6k

 

From History.UK.com:

A Traditional Shropshire Wassail Recipe – for hardened Wassailers!

 

10 very small apples
1 large orange stuck with whole cloves
10 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bottles dry sherry or dry Madeira
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cloves
3 allspice berries
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
2 cups castor sugar
12 to 20 pints of cider according to the number of guests
1 cup (or as much as you like) brandy

 

Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and cover the bottom with 1/8-inch of water.

 

Insert cloves into the orange about 1/2″ apart.
Bake the orange with the apples in a 350° oven.
After about 30 minutes, remove the orange and puncture it in several places with a fork or an ice pick.

 

Combine the sherry or Madeira, cider, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar, apple and orange juice and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat slowly without letting the mixture come to a boil.
Leave on very low heat.
Strain the wine mixture and add the brandy.

 

Pour into a metal punch bowl, float the apples and orange on top and ladle hot into punch cups.

 

Makes enough for 15-20 people – but we always wish we had made more!


 

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