December 31: Wassail!

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand'ring so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too,
And God bless you, and send you a Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Traditional Wassailing Carol

The word 'Wassail' first appears in England in the epic poem ‘Beowulf,’ which was written down in the eight century, It means in Old English – ‘Be of Good Health’ and the correct response was ‘Drinkhail’ as you raised your glass. By the thirteenth century the ‘wassail bowl’ was a communal drinking vessel passed along to your neighbour and into which you might dip a sweet cake or bread. The bowl might contain ale – or wine if you were rich, but most likely it contained mead, metheglin or cider.

By the end of the fourteenth century many rich families owned highly decorated wassail bowls of great value. The bowl would be born into the room with appropriate ceremony. A wassail party held in Henley on Thames in 1555 is described in a contemporary diary:

‘Twelve wessells with maidens singing with their wessells; and the gentlewomen had ordained a great banquet, deserts of spices and fruit, as marmalade, gingerbread, jelly, comfit, sugar plate and divers others.’

Thirty years later is the first mention of wassailing being carried out in relation to farm animals and then more commonly to fruit trees. This practice had become widespread by the eighteenth century when a report in the 'Gentleman’s Magazine' of 1791 gave us the words of a wassail song.

Here’s to thee old apple tree
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow
Hat’s full! Caps full!
And my pockets full too!

The words did vary from district to district but the practice was fairly uniform. A group wassailers gathered in an orchard on one of the Twelve Days of Christmas; Christmas Eve, New Years Eve and Twelfth Night being the most popular. They would make a lot of noise by banging the trees with sticks or firing their guns into the branches, cakes were placed as offerings and a libation of cider poured onto the roots of a tree. Sometimes a number of small bonfires were lit and the smoke would drift through the branches. A mug of hot spiced cider was then passed round the company and the health of the trees was drunk.

It looks like a jolly good party to me. Interestingly it was possible to hire wassailers if you were unable to perform the ritual yourself and groups of young men would visit your trees in return for the usual tokens of gratitude of beer, pennies and food.

So here's my offering for the wassailers - I've stuck to the words of the carol; a piece of Helford Blue Cheese from Treveador Dairy, a hunk of my Christmas Loaf and a glass of spiced cider. In case you're wondering I did pour a little on the roots of my lovely espalier pear so I might get more than nineteen pears in 2011 - keep you posted.

Spiced Cider

Litre of good farmhouse cider
4 tablespoons of honey
6 cloves
2 sticks cinnamon
2 star anise
Peel of an orange
1 un-peeled sliced apple
Splash of cider brandy - or ordinary brandy

Heat everything (except the apple) very gently until the honey has dissolved. Do not boil - you don't want to lose the alcohol, now add the apple, drink very hot.

‘Bring us out a table and spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a mouldy cheese and some of your Christmas loaf.
Love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too,
And God bless you, and send you a Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.'

1 comment:

Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

Christmas loaf looks very pretty... I think we're definitely going wassailing tonight!... wishing you a happy and healthy new year. Dom xxx