What Actually is Wassailing?

© Keller & Keller
By Annie Quigley Posted December 07, 2015

"Here we come a-wassailing"—we've all heard the song. But what, exactly, is wassailing? Turns out, it can mean many things.

The practice of wassailing dates back centuries in England, when, in the dead of winter, villagers would stage elaborate ceremonies in the hopes of ensuring a good cider apple harvest the following year. Some of these rituals included hanging cider-soaked toast from the apple trees, encircling the oldest tree and singing, reciting incantations, banging pots and pans, even firing shotguns. Often, a Wassail King or Queen was elected to help awaken the trees and scare away evil spirits. In yet another version of wassailing, drinkers—often peasants—would carry the bowl from door to door, spreading merriment and drink all around the village. (It's likely that the familiar song "Here We Come A-Wassailing" refers to this version of wassailing, not the version that involves hanging toast on trees.)

But "wassail" isn't just a ritual; it's also a drink made with spiced apple cider. An early version of wassail from the Middle Ages called "lambswool" was a mix of hot mead and crabapples, which, when they burst in the hot liquid, resembled fuzzy wool. The drink was later made with hot mulled cider and sugar, sometimes topped with pieces of bread, and was served in large, often elaborate communal bowls that would be passed from person to person. Those sharing a bowl of wassail would wish each other "was hail," from the Old English meaning "you be healthy," with the response "drink hail," or "drink well."

This holiday season, don't just sing about wassailing—do it! This could mean banging pots and pans in a freezing cold orchard or, if that isn't your thing, just cozy up with a hot mulled cider like this one.


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