Wassail is a drink (…a custom? …a drinking custom?) that is attested in writing as early as the 12th Century. In those earliest written references, it was a toast meaning “good health” and was used as part of a call-and-response. One friend would call “Wassail!” and the other would respond “Drink hail!”
Whether it was, at that time, associated with a spiced cider/ale or not, it certainly was within a couple of centuries. There are probably as many variations on this Yuletide drink as there are families who make it, but most involve some combination of cider or other fruit juices, spices, sugar, and ale — although some use wine or harder spirits to enliven the brew.
Aside from the toasting of a friend’s good health, there are two other traditions that have long-standing associations with wassail — both of which employ the term “wassail” as a verb (as in, “to go a-wassailing.” One is going door-to-door singing a wassailing song while collecting for charity — most frequently armed with a wooden wassail bowl filled with the tasty beverage and offering a toast to the health of the householders. The other involves going into the apple orchard to “wassail the trees.” This was most frequently done in apple orchards as a way to wish good health and abundant harvest for the trees in the coming year.
Laurelei’s Family Wassail Recipe
1 gallon Apple Cider
1 can (6 oz) Frozen Orange Juice
1 can (6 oz) Lemonade
4 cups Water
Put the above ingredients in a 30 cup coffee percolator.
In the basket, put:
6 Cinnamon Sticks
1 & 1/2 tsp whole Allspice
1/2 tsp whole Cloves
1 cup Brown Sugar
This wassail recipe can be adapted to taste, and it serves a crowd. It is my family’s favorite! You can also add some extra “holiday cheer” to it, if you like. It combines well with both wine and liquor (rum, especially), depending on your preference.
If You’ve Never Gone “A-Wassailing” …
… Here’s how!
Take the wassail bowl outside, if you aren’t already outside. Salute the trees that surround your home. Wish them health and long life and offer them a drink. Sing the song “Here We Come A- Wassailing” as you go, if you choose. As with other offerings, it is appropriate for you to share the drink, as well, if you are so moved.
Alternatively, you can sing this as a carol door-to-door (perhaps at the homes of your friends in the Pagan community). You could collect for a charity, and you can certainly still toast the health of residents — although I might suggest bringing your wassail in an insulated container and pouring it into the recipients’ own cups as a way to help preserve everyone’s good health.
“Here We Come A-Wassailing” (lyrics — slightly adapted by me)
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 Godds bless you, and send you a Happy New Year,
And Godds send you a Happy New Year.
You can listen to the tune and the full lyrics here.
Or you can sing the Gloucestershire Wassail Song, of which I’ve only shared the chorus here (since it has 10 verses):
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.
Loreena McKennit recorded a version on her Midwinter Night’s Dream album. You can hear it on YouTube here.
Or the Somerset Wassail Song:
Wassail and wassail all over the town
The cup it is white and the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the malt of the best barley
For its your wassail and its our wassail
And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail
Have a listen here.
Or maybe the Apple Tree Wassail Song:
Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
Hear a version of it here.
Honestly, friends, there are too many to list them all on this articles, but Hutman Productions has done a fine job of collecting them here.
You know, you might even write your own, pulling on the themes of the season and taking inspiration from these glorious renditions that preserve a rich history!
[Laurelei Black is an American folkloric Witch, Aphrodite woman, and author. Find her Linktree here.]