One of the lesser holiday traditions is that of Wassail. Not just the warm apple-based drink, but the old Anglo-Saxon tradition of communal visits, drinking, and well-wishing. These days, our communities are a little too spread out for the door-to-door visits and the requisite drinking, but there’s no reason you can’t do it safely at home with your friends.
There are plenty of recipes out there for the beverage; I needn’t repeat any of them here. Though I would like to point out one from Alton Brown of the Food Network:
It uses ale as its base instead of hard cider or wine, and egg whites and roasted apples to make a froth called “lamb’s wool”. I tried a similar recipe once. It came out drinkable, which is probably the best I could say for it. If you’re going to try and make an ale-based wassail, use a dark English ale like a porter or stout. Guinness will do. Avoid anything overly hoppy (like pretty much every American lager). Heating it brings out the bitterness of the hops.
I suppose that whatever you do, it’s fine, as long as there are apples involved. The wassail tradition has its origins in the cider country of England (Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire), and used the ingredients at hand. That’s also where a lot of the “wassail songs” come from. The one that’s best known is “Here We Come A Wassailing”, but pretty much every community had their own version.
Quite a few of these other versions contain stanzas where the singers salute the apple trees and wish them good health (and the resulting good crop) in the coming year. It’s pretty clear that the tradition really has nothing to do with Christmas, and just happens to be celebrated at the same time of year. I wonder – there’s almost always a Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s. Perhaps a local apple orchard (one of the sort that does Cider Fests in the early autumn) might consider doing a Wassail Festival at that time?
Anyway, if you’re not particularly religious, or are looking for something different to do during the holidays, I bid you Wassail!
Much more on wassailing can be found here: