When cold weather sets in, mulled wine, Hot Toddies, and other warm cocktails get lots of love from drinkers. But long before the English-speaking world had much experience with grape-based wine or distilled spirits at any temperature, there was a beloved tradition for toasting in the winter months — one that seems to be growing today, though it is still largely unknown.
Called wassail, it survives in a handful of forms, all based on ancient practices — so old that they predate the modern English language itself. (Early references to wassail are found in the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” which dates from at least the 10th century.)
With such a long history, it’s understandable that wassail has come to mean different things. Originally, the term was used as a simple greeting: Wassail comes from the Old Norse expression “ves heill,” or roughly, “be healthy.” Like “santé” or “salud,” that gave wassail a meaning as a way to say cheers to a drinking partner, as well as the drink you said that greeting with — originally a kind of hot, spiced ale, served from a special wassail bowl, as the British beer historian Martyn Cornell explains.
“It was originally an old English greeting,” he says. “You’d say, ‘Wassail,’ which meant ‘Your health.’ And the other one would say, ‘Drink hail,’ and that would be ‘Same to you.’ And that was done with ale.”
Singing Wassailing Songs
Cornell has written about wassail for his long-running blog Zythophile, including a mulled ale wassail recipe from 1835. But the practice of mulling ale for wassail went away not long after that, he says. Around the same time, wassail mostly became primarily associated with holiday singing, much like caroling.
“It’s associated with old folk songs mostly,” he says. “If you are a person that, as I was in my youth, went along to folk clubs, around about this time of year, people would start singing the Christmas-y songs, and one or two or three of them were ‘wassailing’ songs. They would sing about ‘going a’wassailing,’ which basically meant going around door to door, trying to get donations for your wassail bowl so that you could fill it with spices and ale and all the rest of it. People would sing about figgy pudding and plum cake and all these other traditional English dishes and drinks. But as an actual drink, it had long since disappeared.”
What stayed behind was more than just beloved carols like “Here We Come A-wassailing.” The very idea of giving a “toast,” he adds, is thought to come from the traditional wassail bowl and the way spices were added to it.
“You would put your spices on a piece of toast and float that in the bowl,” he says. “And that way, the spices gradually emerged into it. That is supposed to be where the expression ‘to raise a toast to someone’ comes from.”
While Cornell acknowledges the difficulty of proving the truth of that etymology, what is clear is that ale stopped being used to make the wassail beverage once ales started to become much more bitter, which was not exactly a coincidence.
“Ale originally was unhopped — you could boil it, you could heat it, and it didn’t make any difference,” he says. Even until the middle of the 18th century, he says, English ales were only lightly hopped, which still worked for mulled ale. The hoppy ales that then grew in popularity, however, were much too bitter to be heated up.
“As ales got more bitter because they had more hops, you could no longer heat the ale the way that you could when it was lightly hopped,” he says. “And that is, I think, what basically wrecked the whole wassailing hot ale-based drinks tradition in England.”
But that tradition didn’t go away completely. Instead, wassail — and toast — went into the orchard.
Sing to the Trees
For cider makers like Susanna Forbes, co-founder of Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery in Herefordshire, England, wassail has a very special meaning. In her country’s traditional apple-growing regions, wassail is hot, spiced cider, and wassailing involves groups of people visiting the orchards and singing early in the new year.
“Come early January, the trees are going to need to be woken up,” she says. “We are going back to a wonderful pagan ritual.”
As the U.K.’s National Trust notes, orchard wassail events vary from region to region, often incorporating local traditions alongside their pagan roots. They usually take place after dark, and include torches, bonfires, poems, and songs.
And then there is the noise-making.
“You have to make a load of noise banging lots of things to scare away the evil spirits,” Forbes says. “It’s a huge amount of fun. It’s not uncommon that after the sharing of the wassail cup and the rituals around the trees, there will always be poems read, and then spontaneous folk music sessions happen in nearby barns.”
While the orchard wassail is closely tied to Twelfth Night on Jan. 5 or 6, hardcore traditionalists will celebrate wassail according to Twelfth Night on the Julian calendar, which was used in England until 1752. By that measure, the proper date for an orchard wassail would be Jan. 16 or 17 on today’s calendar. For the sake of convenience, many wassail events are simply scheduled on January weekends.
In the village of Hartley Wintney in Hampshire, England, the annual wassail is set to take place on Friday, Jan. 13, with a torchlight procession that starts at the village pub, the Waggon and Horses, where publican Kaesy Steele will be serving a traditional mulled cider.
“It’s sort of a family-orientated event,” he says. “It’s all about blessing the fruit trees and the orchard in order to get a fantastic harvest.”
Gabe Cook, author of “Modern British Cider,” says that while the orchard wassail tradition goes back 500 years or more, it has really re-emerged in the last couple of decades.
“Until 20 or 30 years ago, there wasn’t a great deal of it left,” he says. “There would’ve been a few deep, dark corners of Gloucester, Hereford, Somerset, Devon, and Dorset where people would’ve done it on farms and the tradition would’ve been kept going. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, you had revivals of traditional cultures and customs and the desire either to recreate them or ensure that they hadn’t died out.”
In England, those customs usually include sharing a wassail bowl and repeating the “wassail” greeting. They frequently also involve pouring cider at the roots of the trees and offering toast — as in bread — in the hopes of waking the trees and ensuring a good harvest.
“You do some pouring of cider at the base of the tree and stuffing some bread into and onto the branches,” Cook says. “You either kind of skew the toast onto a branch, or the trees have little nooks and crevices, and you shove the bread in there.”
Make It Your Own
While orchard wassail events originated in England, they have also caught on in New England, often with a pronounced local influence. On Dec. 9-11, the Chamber of Commerce in Woodstock, Vt., held its 39th annual Wassail Weekend, with events that included dipping candles and roasting s’mores at Billings Farm & Museum, as well as a three-course wassail dinner menu at Woodstock Inn & Resort.
Those might sound unlike the English tradition of banging pots and pans, offering cider and toasted bread to the apple trees, and singing folk songs. But for Cook, incorporating local flair is a great way to keep traditions alive.
“I think it’s great that wassail is being undertaken outside of these shores,” he says. “And it shouldn’t look identical — it can’t and it won’t. It’s a good thing to introduce new elements. Rather than arcane and archaic, make it relevant. Make it fun. Make it something that is going to perpetuate. Bring in other old American customs. Put in an entirely new thing that’s yours, for your wassail, something that’s really regional. That’s cool. And that’s fun.”
If you’re thinking of hosting your own wassail, there’s no reason to stick to mulled cider. Mulled ale might have long since gone out of fashion, but Cornell notes that it still can work, especially for a wassail with a historic feel.
“Make sure that you’ve got hold of an ale or a beer that is lightly hopped enough to stand up to being heated,” he says. “I would probably recommend a dark ale, something that’s in the English mild tradition. Try different combinations of spices until you find one that you like. And then have your mates over, roast a few chestnuts, and get the mince pies out.”