“Wassail”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated from the Old Norse saluatation, ves heill, literally meaning “be in good health” or “be fortunate”. The history of Wassail in England begins first as a drinking phrase, found in a manuscript from 1275 that says –

Þat freond sæiðe to freonde…Leofue freond wæs hail Þe oðer sæið Drinc hail. [That friend said to [the other] friend…,”beloved friend, wassail!”; the other said, “drinkhail!”]

By the beginning of the 1300s, it moved from being used as simply a share of good will and cheers to a drink itself, specifically paired with a spiced beverage shared during Christmastime and the subsequent Twelfth-night celebration.

Today we may recognize the word wassail from popular Christmas carols such as “Here We Come a Wassailing” or “The Wassail Song”, but wassailing was not only a beverage and a toast, but an entire activity unto itself.

During Christmastime and more specifically Twelfth-night, within towns and cities, groups of people would go from home to home singing to their neighbors and wishing them good health. A communal wassail bowl was brought and shared among each other. The bowl contained a warm beverage, generally an ale, cider or wine that was mixed with spices.

16th century English footed wood bowl dated 1534
16th century English footed wood bowl dated 1534.

Another type of wassailing, took place in the country and involved the blessing of the fruit trees, but still had the focus of celebration, community and communal drinking. Each wassail ceremony would vary from village to village but they generally have all of the same elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next; the wassail Queen is then lifted into the boughs of the tree where she places bread soaked in wassail from the clayen cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year).  Versions of this wassailing still occur in parts of England, the United Kingdom and the United States today.

Here we come a-wassailing

Among the leaves so green;

Here we come a-wand’ring

So fair to be seen…

…Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Wassail as a beverage, first began as a warmed mead, in which roasted crab apples were dropped and burst creating what was called as “lambs wool”. The accounts of when and how this was created vary, as do the date as when we first have the documented recipes. There is no definitive recipe for “wassail” the drink, as it varies from county to county. However, it is generally agreed that the main components are the spices and alcohol, as it is a drink to wish all who partake of it, good health. Knowing the basic principles of how it was made, the recipe below is my interpretation of it. .

Lambswool Wassail

  • 50 oz. of alcoholic (or non alcoholic) cider
  • 6 small cooking apples
  • 2 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 tsp. mace
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 3/4 Cup of Brown Sugar packed

Preheat Oven to 250 F. While the oven is preheating, core the apples but do not peel. Once the oven has reached temperature, place cored apples on a baking sheet and let bake for 1 hour. Remove from oven and let cool.

In a large saucepot, pour in the brown sugar and cover with some of the cider. Heat until the sugar has melted. Add the mace, nutmeg and ginger and stir to combine.

Add the remaining cider and heat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes. While that is happening, remove the peels from the apples and mash into a puree. Add the apple puree to the cider mixture and whisk in. Warm through on a gentle heat for about 30 minutes and whisk before serving so that the apple rises to the top and gives a foamy look.

Based on a recipe found at travelingwithintheworld and Herrick’s poem “Twelfth Night.

Drink and be merry. Wassail!