Family Christmas Traditions: English Wassail

As I mentioned in my last post, I really love traditions during the holidays; the older the better! My last name is Potter; so obviously, a good portion of my ancestry is English (though sadly, there is no known record of any ACTUAL witches or wizards in my family despite one of my relatives being accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials).

England is even old than Arthur, King of the Britains!

England is even old than Arthur, King of the Britains!

Now, as you know, England is one of the oldest countries in the world, and many of our American traditions can be traced back to our friends “over the pond.” Many of THEIR traditions stem from pagan rituals or Roman culture.  And of course, lots of blood was shed and whatnot over the centuries, but that’s all rather unpleasant so let’s just skip that, yes?    So moving on…one of my favorite Christmas traditions in the Potter household is wassail.  I don’t expect everyone to know what wassail is (despite it being totally awesome and something everyone SHOULD know about). Perhaps you’ve heard the Christmas carol, “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and wondered, “what are they talking about in this song? Is that some weird Victorian slang for doing drugs or something?”

The Victorian Era: letting children buy cocaine as a toothache remedy for 15 cents since 1885.

The Victorian Era: letting children buy cocaine as a toothache remedy for 15 cents since 1885.

No, children, it is not, even though I could see the confusion with lyrics like “here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green, here we come a-wand’ring so fair to be seen.” Sounds like a Victorian head trip, but I assure you, wassail causes no chemical/psychological changes to your brain, though it may produce some euphoria (if you make it right). So what IS wassail, you ask? A remarkably wonderful, hot beverage!

First page of Beowulf from the Nowell Codex. I can't read it but I assume it says, "this poem is laborious and Angelina Jolie is NOT an accurate representation of Grendel's mom."

First page of Beowulf from the Nowell Codex. I can’t read it but I assume it says, “this poem is laborious and Angelina Jolie is NOT an accurate representation of Grendel’s mom.”

Wassail, or vas heil in Old Norse and wæs hæil in Anglo-Saxon, means “good health” or “be you healthy.” The word originally appeared as a salute in the epic 8th century poem, Beowulf (remember reading THAT in high school English class? Woof.). An old legend, which is described in 1135 by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book, History of the Kings of Britain, tells the story of a maiden name Renwein who brought King Vortigern a goblet of wine at a royal banquet and toasted him saying, “Lavert King, was heil!”  Not only was this a toast, but a reference to the drink she had prepared for him. Wassail was a spiced wine, a descendant of the Roman drink hypocras, and prepared using imported, expensive spices like cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and cloves. Sometime later, the wine was replaced by fine ales, which made the drink more accessible to the lower classes in England. As a result, the recipe for wassail varies from family to family.

Vortigern and Renwein: no red solo cups at THIS party.

Vortigern and Renwein: no red solo cups at THIS party.

Wassailing is also an ancient ceremony performed in the cider-producing counties of England. It involved singing and drinking to the health of the trees to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest (sounds like something out of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings).  Eventually this practice and that of Renwein’s merged into the practice of wassailing we’re more familiar with today. Wassailing became very popular in the 1600s where people would travel door-to-door with large, decorated bowls of the drink, offering “good cheer” and sometimes expecting payment. It was temporarily banned by Parliament for a time during Puritan years (when they also banned the celebration of Christmas; HAVE YOU NO JOY, PURITANS?!), but then resurged in popularity (along with the “new” drink egg nog) in the Victorian era thanks to writers like Charles Dickens and Washington Irving. Now wassailing is a traditional part of an old English Christmas!

God bless us everyone!  Oh, and we brought liquor.

Wassailing in the 1600s.  “God bless us everyone! Oh, and we brought liquor.”

My mother and I use a family recipe to make wassail every year for Christmas. It’s a drink that warms you from your head to your toes. Ours is non-alcoholic, but you can find many a recipe online for alcoholic versions if you’re so “spirits”-ually inclined (most use some form of either wine, bourbon, or ale). We serve ours from a giant bowl, much like how it was served over 600 years ago (though in those days, they also put bread or “sops” on top…not to be confused with Beyonce putting your love on top.).

POTTER FAMILY WASSAIL RECIPE – Courtesy of the kitchen of Kathy Potter

  • 1 qt. apple juice
  • 1 qt. cranapple or cranberry juice
  • 1 qt. orange juice
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 12 whole cloves
  • Allspice

Place allspice, cloves, and cinnamon sticks inside a small sack of cheesecloth, tying it off at the top.   Place all ingredients, including the cheesecloth sack of spices inside a large pot and bring to boil on the stove. Remove cheesecloth and strain before serving.

Was heil! (Singing to trees is optional.)was heil

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