The holidays are awash in special beverages, from traditional eggnog to the more recent salted caramel cocktail. We even have a song that pairs holiday spirit with drinking:
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.
The English carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing” was adapted in the 20th century into “Here We Come a Caroling,” probably because most people had no idea what wassailing was anymore. Turns out it’s a noun, verb and a drink worth exploring.
Wassail roughly translates as “be in (good) health” and was used as a toast. It is an ancient word dating back to Old Norse, the language of medieval Scandinavian countries, and Old English, the language of Anglo-Saxon England. It appears in the poem “Beowulf:”
The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.
Wassail also came to refer to the beverage used in the toast, usually some kind of brewed and spiced ale or cider. In medieval Britain there are records of farmers wassailing their crops and animals to encourage fertility. At some point the wassail bowl became a thing. In the 1600s English revelers would carry the bowl door to door, singing and toasting those inside. People of the lower classes would expect some kind of payment or special treatment in return from the upper classes. The roots of this tradition are often traced back to the pagan Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, a time of wild revelry when roles between classes were reversed.
Sometimes wassailers’ songs included threats. In “Here We Come A-wassailing,” there’s the line about “bring us some figgy pudding” because “we won’t go until we get some.” In another old wassail song, documented in Stephen Nissenbaum’s book “The Battle for Christmas,” there’s this verse:
We’ve come here to claim our right …
And if you don’t open up your door,
We’ll lay you flat upon the floor.
While aggressive wassailers are no longer a problem, an emphasis on giving to the less fortunate during the holiday season remains, along with caroling, toasting and general carousing.
Warm your winter guests with wassail
Wassail is a wonderful, warming drink for the darkest and coldest days of the year, like Friday’s winter solstice.
The actual contents of the wassail bowl have changed over time, and there are hundreds of “traditional” recipes to be found on the internet. Most involve some kind of warm cider or juice slow brewed with spices. The following recipe, adapted from the Curious Cuisiniere website, uses eggs to craft a creamy, filling drink with a delightfully foamy top.
If you’re not used to drinking your eggs, no need to fear. The eggs are tempered with hot liquid to make them safe to consume. This recipe calls for some whole spices, but I substituted ground spices I had on hand and was happy with the results, as were those I shared it with. It also calls for brandy, which adds body and acidity to a drink that might otherwise be too sweet. It’s worth including.
Frothed Apple Cider Wassail
Start to finish: 40 minutes
Serves 8 to 10
8 cups apple cider (2 quarts)
½ cup brandy
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
8 whole allspice berries (1 teaspoon ground)
3 whole cloves (½ teaspoon ground)
2 cinnamon sticks (1 teaspoon ground)
6 eggs, separated
Pour the apple cider and brandy into a large soup pot and warm the mixture over medium-low heat. Do not boil.
Add the ginger and nutmeg. If using whole spices, tie up the allspice berries, cloves and cinnamon sticks in cheesecloth to keep them from getting lost as they steep. Put the bag into the cider and heat until warm, about 20 to 30 minutes. (If using a large slow cooker, heat on low for 4 to 5 hours).
Separate the eggs by putting the whites into a medium bowl and yolks into a small bowl. With an electric hand mixer, beat the yolks until they are pale and frothy. Set aside. Next, whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form.
Blend the egg yolks into the beaten egg whites until just combined. Temper the eggs by slowly pouring 1 cup of the hot wassail cider into the eggs, whisking while pouring.
Remove the spice bundle from the wassail and, if you like, pour the cider into a punch bowl. Add the tempered eggs, stirring gently to combine. Serve in mugs.