Wassail is a hot, spiced punch often associated with Yuletide. Historically, the drink was a mulled ale made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toast. Modern recipes begin with a base of wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale, sometimes with brandy or sherry added. Pieces of winter fruits, such as apples or oranges, are often added to the mix. Particularly popular in Germanic countries, the term itself is a contraction of the Middle English phrase wæs hæil, meaning “be healthy”. The origins of the practice of wassailing are closely
While the beverage typically served as “wassail” at modern holiday feasts with a medieval theme most closely resembles mulled cider, historical wassail drinks were completely different, more likely to be mulled beer or mead. Sugar, ale, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon would be placed in a bowl, heated, and topped with slices of toast as sops.
Hence the first stanza of the traditional carol the Gloucestershire Wassail dating back to the Middle Ages:
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.
At Carhampton, near Minehead, the Apple Orchard Wassailing is held on the Old Twelfth Night (17 January) as a ritual to ask God for a good apple harvest. The villagers form a circle around the largest apple tree, hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the ‘good spirits’ of the tree. A shotgun is fired overhead to scare away evil spirits and the group sings, the following being the last verse:
Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We’ve come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.