How Wassailing Became A Christmas Tradition

the tradition of Christmas carolling has its roots in wassailing

Revelling in the festive spirit means paying an ode to numerous traditions which evolve through aeons of cultural shifts and influences to become synonymous with joyous Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations. Wassailing or toasting to good health during the festive season has waltzed in and out of historical traditions; it is a practice predating Christmas itself, as we mark the festival today.

While a mulled wassail is a popular drink in England made from apple cider, the tradition of wassailing is actually about raising a toast to celebrate winter and the festive fervour. In Old English, the phrase ‘waes hael’ means ‘be well’ or ‘be in good health,’ and wassail, derived from English and Norse roots essentially means the custom of drinking to good health on cold nights.

Marking Winter Solstice 

With roots in pagan traditions, wassailing can be traced back to ancient Germanic and Norse practices celebrating the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Wassailing was practiced to usher in longer days and wish for bountiful harvests in the year to follow. As Christianity assumed predominance across Europe, wassailing in winter months came to be quickly associated with the Twelfth Night and Christmas Eve.

the tradition of Christmas carolling has its roots in wassailing

Orchard And Home-Visiting Wassailing

Two kinds of wassailing would take place in the ancient and middle ages, orchard wassailing in which communities would go to apple orchards to sing to the trees and ask the gods to bless them with a good harvest. The other was house wassailing, and akin to carolling involved singing door-to-door with a wassail bowl to be exchanged for lovely festive gifts!

Wassail Recipe

The drink itself is a spiced mix made from different Christmas ingredients like apples and cinnamon along with quality brandy and apple cider. Its modern iterations involve adding rum to the mix along with cranberry juice and an assortment of spices.

Wassailing, as a communal tradition had all but disappeared from history until a 20th century interest in ancient cultures revived the drink and its connections with Christmas merrymaking. If you are planning on home hosting this festive season, you can make multiple matches of the warm, spiced drink using a few good quality ingredients. Use premium quality spirits like spiced rum or a Captain Morgan Dark Rum if you are making a bowl of this Christmas punch at home.

Here’s a simple recipe to make a large wassail bowl for your next festive gathering. Please note that it serves anywhere between 6-8 people, so don’t overfill your glasses:

Ingredients

1 bottle (750 ml) dark or spiced rum
3 litres apple cider
1.5 litres cranberry juice
1 cup brown sugar
4-5 cinnamon sticks
10-15 cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
2-3 cardamom pods
3 oranges

For the garnish

Cinnamon sticks, star anise, orange slices

Method

Clove the oranges: Push cloves into the orange skin and slice oranges. It is okay to hit the cloves while slicing but make sure you have an abundance of the spice in each orange.

In a large saucepan or slow cooker, pour rum, apple cider and cranberry juice and stir in the brown sugar according to taste.

Next, add ground nutmeg, cardamom and oranges. Heat the wassail mix over medium flame to allow the mixture to warm gradually.

Let the wassail pot simmer for at least an hour so the flavours are infused in the liquid.

Once the mixture is cooled you can strain it into a wassail bowl and garnish with cinnamon sticks, star anise and orange slices.

Wassail is now ready to be served! Used a ladle to pour it into mugs during the festive season.

Wrapping Up…

With roots in Norse traditions, wassailing meant raising a toast to mark the winter solstice. When Christmas and wassailing became entwined, drinking the spiced wassail became a sought after practice to celebrate the festival. Go on, make a wassail bowl and immerse yourself in this ancient custom!