In addition to being the season of resolutions, this is the season of wassailing — the perfect time to find some winter apples and make a traditional wassail for Twelfth Night, Jan. 5. In Europe and early America, this was the traditional night for wassailing, but the word and the tradition are much older, dating to the eighth century.
Until my sisters got into the organic apple-growing business, the only time I ever heard the word wassail was in the lively cadenced carol “Here we go a-wassailing …” But that sort of wassailing — house-to-house caroling with an element of trick-or-treat thrown in — is relatively recent.
The original wassailing tradition, which predates even the word, was barn to barn, orchard to orchard and tree to tree. It was an important ritual in which people gave an alcoholic beverage to trees, crops and livestock to ensure their health and fertility. It was also a way of giving back to the earth itself, provider of all sustenance.
The word wassail comes from an ancient Saxon greeting, a contraction of wæs hæil, meaning “be healthy.” The second word is the same as our currently underused English word “hale” as in “hale and hearty.” By the 12th century, “wassail” had become the salutation you offered as a toast, to which the standard reply was “drinc hæil,” or “drink good health.”
Over time, wassail came to refer to the drink itself, a hot spiced cider with plenty of whatever alcohol was at hand. At some point, the word and the ancient tradition merged, as described in this old rhyme:
Henry David Thoreau cited this rhyme, and also quoted from John Brand’s “Popular Antiquities,” in his essay “Wild Apples” published in the Atlantic Monthly in November 1862. Thoreau describes the wassailing tradition in Devonshire by noting that the farmers, “take a large bowl of cider, with a toast in it, and carrying it in state to the orchard, they salute the apple trees with much ceremony, in order to make them bear well the next season.”
The “salute” entails pouring cider around the base of the tree and then placing pieces of toast on the branches. Finally the farmers circle one of the best trees and drink the following toast to it:
Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Bushel, bushel, sacks-full!
And my pockets full, too! Hurrah!
Wassailing modern-day apple trees
This is the tradition that my sister Teresa, an organic fruit grower, had us revive a few years ago. First, we made a big pot of wassail and then on midnight of Twelfth Night, a bitter night of 5 degrees with a biting wind, we bundled up everyone and gave the kids pots and pans that they could bang with kitchen implements. We traipsed out of the house, a ragtag parade, with the kids leading the way, and the adults bringing up the rear with the wassail bowl and toast.
Once out in the orchard, we placed cider-soaked pieces of bread on the bare branches to bring forth good spirits (birds). Then the kids banged the pots and pans to ward off evil spirits. We splashed the wassail at the base of each tree, formed a circle around it and sang an early American version of the old song:
We’ve come to wassail thee,
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.
It seemed a fitting gesture — returning some of the cider to feed the tree, and leaving some toast for the morning birds.
Traditional Winter Apple Wassail
- Core the apples and place in a heavy roasting pan. Fill each empty core with brown sugar.
- Put enough water in the bottom of the pan to cover it.
- Bake apples in a 350 F oven for 40 minutes or until tender.
- Meanwhile, put the sherry or Madeira, spices, sugar and water into a large, heavy saucepan or crock pot. Heat gently, without letting it come to a simmer.
- Beat the egg yolks until light and lemon-colored. Then beat the whites until stiff and fold them into the yolks.
- Strain the hot liquid to remove the spices, and gradually add it to the eggs, stirring constantly.
- Add the brandy, then pour into a punch bowl.
- Float the baked apples on top and serve.
Photos, from top:
Organic fruit grower Teresa Santiago, lower left, leads the wassailing of the apple trees on Twelfth Night, singing “Here’s to thee, Old Apple Tree.”
Santiago offers each apple tree a drink of spicy wassail to ensure a good harvest the next year.
Credits: Terra Brockman