I knew that C.S. Lewis and I had more in common than our Christianity when he said, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." Welcome to a celebration of faith, tea, and the written word. I'm always engaged in a book, and whether it's one I'm reading or one of the inspirational historical romances I write, there's always a cup of tea close by. Join me in a cup as we chat about faith, our favorite books and the exciting places our reading and writing adventures take us.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Wassail! Wassail! All Over the Town!

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 Go A-Wassailing for Guidepost’s Cup of Christmas Cheer, 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.”
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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.
wassail-1
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 (a bit like trick-or-treating). 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 like this:
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!
originally shared on Heroes, Heroines, and History Blog.

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