By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America
“Wassail! Wassail! All over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.”
— Traditional English Carol Author Unknown
Tonight is Twelfth Night and I have a few friends dropping by for a wassail party! If you’ve never had the pleasure, Wassail is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Winter Solstice and Christmas celebrations and the serving of it can continue well into Twelfth Night and beyond. I personally love to drink wassail all winter long, because it is so spicy, slightly bittersweet, satisfying, and warming.
The earliest versions of wassail were warmed mead or ale into which roasted clove-studded crab apples were dropped. After they were heated for a bit, the apples burst into the pot, creating a glorious, delicious, and frothy mixture known as ‘fuzzy lamb’s wool.’
In later years, this drink evolved to become mulled cider, ale and claret whisked with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toasted fruitcake to sop it all up.
On Twelfth Night, known to Christians as the Epiphany…wassailing is a time to engage in bit of revelry and celebration before the Christmas tree comes down. Twelth Night festivities were usually overseen by a designated “Lord of Misrule,” who presided over what was known as the “feast of fools,” traditionally a night of wanton drunkenness, caroling, and wild partying.
Twelfth Night was also a time to “wassail” the orchards. The purpose of wassailing the orchards was to feed, protect and honor the fruit trees to help ensure a fine autumn harvest. I wassail our trees almost every year because I love the feeling of continuing to partake in this age-old ritual of joy, magic, and survival.
Historically, the ceremonies used for wassailing varied from village to village but were similar in intent. The wassail was carried from house to house in a traditional bowl carved of white maple. In addition to the Lord of Misrule, a Wassail King and Queen led the revelry from one orchard to the next. The villagers formed a circle around the largest apple tree, the Wassail Queen was lifted up into the boughs of the chosen tree to hang pieces of toast or fruitcake soaked in wassail in the branches as a gift to the trees and the robins, and other sprites that frolicked among them.
My recipe for Wassail begins with a base of hard cider, claret or mead. Then I add brandy or Madeira. I have no real measurements because this is almost always created with personal tastes in mind. I usually add clove-studded apples, lemons, dried cranberries, oranges, sweet butter and honey instead of sugar. If I’m in the mood I’ll use some real maple syrup for sweetening in honor of the traditional maple bowl used to serve the wassail in earlier times. Once I bring this mixture to a slow simmer in a large copper pot it will be time to add the fragrant spice blend. (Please note that if you like this can be made easily in a crock pot.)
Note, mulling spices are absolutely delicious AND they are thought to be full of compounds that promote healing and immune support. Every herb and spice in my wassail blend serves the dual purpose of being tasty and immuno-supportive. Rosemary is delicious, but it’s also known for its anti- inflammatory qualities. Cinnamon and clove have been historically used for their warming, soothing, and pain-reducing abilities.
Cardamom, coriander, allspice and star anise are traditionally used in herbal blends to support digestion and ease the pain of inflammation. Orange and lemon peel are thought to help loosen excessive mucus in the lungs and possess anti-microbial qualities.
I’ll generally put about a teaspoon of each of these into an organic muslin bag. Then, straight into the pot they go. After simmering for about 30 minutes the wassail will be ready to serve. The natural accompaniments for this beverage are the hard cheeses like cheddar and gruyere, spicy sausages, jam, gingerbread, fruitcake, buttered toast … and, of course, singing and dancing.
One of the delightful things about the wassailing tradition and the accompanying Twelfth Night celebration is that it gives Jim and I one last chance to turn on the Christmas lights, light a fire in the copper cauldron and sing our favorite seasonal carols in the company of our dearest friends and neighbors.
Does the traditional wassail ritual work its magic? I will say that last year I was not able to wassail my trees because I was out of town on Twelfth Night and guess what? Only a few pithy apples appeared this year from my two old heirloom trees and my young trees lost their fruit too early.
Can you guess where I’ll be this night?