Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Here We Come A-Wassailing

Thank you for having me today! Waes-hael! That’s an Anglo-Saxon greeting of good health, part of an ancient custom that’s changed in meaning over the centuries. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the image of the wassail bowl, filled to the brim and redolent with sweet and spice, ready to be shared among friends.

When Anita Mae Draper sat down to write Here We Come A-Wassailing for Guidepost’s A Cup of Christmas Cheer, she said she “thought of the song and imagined a woman on her way home, gathering people along the way as they do when they go caroling on Christmas Eve. It only seemed natural that when she got there her mother would have a steaming wassail bowl waiting.”

Clearly, wassail is now and has always been about more than a warm, spicy drink. Today, we think of it as a Christmas tradition, but it was not specific to any holiday in centuries gone by. The first recorded mention of wassail—as an act of salute and fellowship, not just as a drink— is in the epic 8th-century poem, Beowulf.

The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.

One can easily imagine the fellowship taking place in the great halls of England as folk gathered on chill evenings around a bowl of wassail, wishing one another good health as they drank.
One wonders what such a drink tasted like. Originally, wassail was made of ale, mead, or wine, eggs, sugar, spices, and curdled cream, garnished with floating toast (the source of our modern day term for raising one’s glass to someone!). The addition of roasted apples and their frothy-looking pulp gave rise to another name for wassail, Lamb’s Wool.

Regardless of the recipe, wassail of days gone by was undoubtedly stout in its alcohol content. Fruit juice in the bowl, if any, was no doubt fermented. Only the wealthy could afford the wine and spices, so the recipes varied according to the finances of the family serving it. Wassail was heated and then served from huge bowls, often made of wood, silver, or pewter.

While wassailing in some areas of England had a pagan connotation (orchard-wassailing entailed to the health of apple trees and scaring away evil spirits), eventually, wassailing came to be associated with Christmastide. By at least the 16th century, wealthy landowners hosted villagers for a feast and wassail on Twelfth Night in exchange for the villager’s singing and toasts to the master’s health. Ever wondered why the singers demand figgy pudding in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” after sharing their good tidings? It all goes back to wassailing—a salute in exchange for food and drink.

The Gloucester Wassail carol from the Middle Ages, puts it thus:
Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.

By the 19th century, wassailing evolved into Christmas caroling, going door to door sharing holiday cheer but still expecting alcohol in return. Around 1850, the popular wassailing carol came about, and we still sing it today:
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.

Today, wassailing is almost synonymous with caroling, although modern folk don’t expect figgy pudding or mulled mead as the price of their songs. On the contrary, the fun and fellowship of the experience are payment enough, but if a neighbor offers cocoa to warm our cold hands, few of us are loath to say no.

Ready to make your own wassail for the holiday season? Some recipes call for claret mulled with spices. Others mix spices and juices (apple, pineapple, and orange) with sherry and brandy. Tamer versions (like mine, below) are alcohol-free. No matter the recipe, wassail will be fragrant with cinnamon and cloves, served warm, and sticky if spilled!

And best of all, it still tastes better when shared with friends.

Wassail Punch

Serves 6
In a crockpot or Dutch oven, combine:
6 cups apple cider (not juice)
1 cup cranberry or orange juice
In a cheesecloth pouch or large bag for steeping tea, place 4 cinnamon sticks, 8-10 whole cloves, and 8-10 whole allspice. Add to juices. If desired, add one sliced orange for color. I do not add sugar, but if desired, a small amount may be used.
Simmer until hot. Enjoy!

Have you ever gone Christmas caroling? Did anyone offer you a cup of cocoa or cookies as a result?


Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others to the glory of God. She loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. Her first novella, Love’s Reward, is part of the Most Eligible Bachelor Collection, coming in June, 2015. You can visit her on her website,


  1. Susanne, thank you for this very informative post. I've gone caroling with the Youth Group, and although we were offered many cups of cocoa, we only stayed to visit once each time for refreshments - usually at one of the kids' grandparents. Up here, December nights are below freezing point and the kids get too warm just standing inside the door with all their outerwear on, so we pop in, sing a carol, then pop out again. And although we don't stay for cocoa, any offered cookies are thankfully accepted. :)

  2. Anita Mae, thank you so much for inviting me to share today! What a treat.

    Youth Groups seem to be the most popular vehicle for caroling around here, too. Our Youth Group carols at retirement villages rather than neighborhoods. Only once have I been caroling and offered a treat, and that was back when I was a Girl Scout. Clearly it made an impression on me, though, because I still remember the man who brought cookies to us!

  3. My caroling experiences were also with a choir and inviting us all in would have been a very hospitable undertaking. I'd love to make assail punch in some form this year. Thanks Susie!

  4. Thanks so much for popping in, Deb! Here's a virtual cup of wassail. Wish we could all share the real thing this morning--I'm cold!

    1. Cold? Why just last week I was enjoying 80F weather in Monterey, CA and loving every second of it. But this morning I awoke to the 1st snow of the season and not only is it pretty out there, but when I stepped outside there wasn't any wind so it was simply beautiful. For now. :D

    2. Well, you got me there, Anita. I'm not cold now. It's 70 and just lovely. But not as lovely as Monterey!

  5. Yep, totally caroled with my Youth Group. Don't actually remember if we were offered any goodies. Congrats to Anita Mae for Here We Come A-Wassailing and Guidepost’s A Cup of Christmas Cheer

    1. Thank you, Lisa. Between the book and snow, I feel like putting out my Christmas decorations. Wait... okay I've just added Nov 29th to my calendar as the day we decorate the house. Not only is that the weekend we attend the annual Briercrest Christmas Show, but Nick will be home for that weekend and he really enjoys setting out the Nativity sets and things.

  6. I haven't gone caroling but I have received carolers. I gave candy canes.

    1. Ooh, what a smart idea, Melanie! Candy canes are perfect to share. And what a treat to receive carolers!

      Thanks for stopping in!

  7. You're putting me in the mood for Christmas . . . and I'm not ready!! :D

    Lovely post.

    Yes, I've been caroling, but usually we ended up back at the church to have treats and hot chocolate. :D

    1. I'm not quite ready for the Christmas season, either, but I confess I'm already shopping.

      Treats and cocoa at the church sounds fun! I love it!

  8. Yes I've been caroling but we were the ones giving out a treat :)

  9. Hi Susanne,
    Christmas is to me a season, just like fall or spring, and probably my favorite of the year. As a regency romance author, I researched extensively into yuletide traditions for the early 19th century, culminating in my pdf book, REGENCY HOUSE CHRISTMAS: The Definitive Guide to a Remarkably Regency Yuletide. In my food chapter, I explored the origins of wassail as you have done in this post; but I thought I'd share a little tidbit of an earlier mention in the book--just for fun and just because it's about--well--Christmas! Here goes...Enjoy.

    "Picture it: Candles glowing and a blazing fire, friends and loved ones,
    neighbors and clergy, surrounding you while you sip your glass of wassail and
    listen while someone sings a traditional carol aloud from across the room....the
    smell of holly and mince pie and the spices in your drink mingle pleasantly in the
    air about you, as comfortable together as you are with these people you may well
    have known your whole life.... Welcome to an early nineteenth century Christmas
    evening entertainment. More than the usual Assembly, rout or dinner party, this
    evening is infused with an extra sparkle in everyone's eyes; a little air of cheer, a
    little extra good-will, that is not commonly felt. Such is the effect of Christmas in
    the air..."
    Thanks for the great post.