Here We Come A-Wassailing

My boss at the Noble House had asked me to write a Christmas-related article for their newsletter before I headed south. I presented her with several topics and she chose this one about wassailing. I have included a wassail recipe at the end. Enjoy!

Here We Come A-Wassailing

By Denise Fuller

As the old carol goes:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green.

Say what?! Where do you find green leaves at Christmas time? And by the way, wassailing came on Twelfth Night (or January 5th), or Old Twelfth Night, which came on January 17th.

Wassailing has centuries of history behind it, some say back to the 5th century, or even the 3rd. Before Christian missionaries came to the British Isles, villagers would go through the orchards in mid-winter and make a lot of racket to drive the evil spirits out and threaten the trees if they didn’t produce well in the spring and summer. This included singing and pouring cider on the roots of the trees to encourage fertility. There is a village in Cornwall – Grampound – where they still wassail the apple orchards on New Year’s Day.

Eventually, Wassail became an alcoholic punch that was given to visitors during the Christmas season, or New Year’s, or it was carried around the village from house to house in a wooden bowl that was decorated with holly and ivy and red ribbons. Hence, “the leaves so green”! The word “wassail” came to be associated with any occasion that included imbibing. Shakespeare mentioned it in two of his plays. In Hamlet, he wrote:

“The king doth wake to-night, and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassel.”

And in Love’s Labor Lost, he wrote:

He is wit’s peddler, and retails his wares
At wakes and wassels, meetings, markets, fairs.”

The word, wassail, comes from the Anglo-Saxon words for “to your health”, or “waes hael”.1

At Christmas time, wealthy people were more apt to be generous, so children would sing a blessing at their door in hopes of getting something to eat or drink or perhaps some money.

Good master and good mistress,
While you’re sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.

However, wassailing became so violent and riotous that both England and the American colonies banned Christmas for a time. When Christmas was brought back, the powers that be wanted it to be homier, so they encouraged Christmas caroling rather than wassailing.2 Today, wassailing is mostly just a word in a song.

Traditional wassail recipe

Serves 6 to 8 people

Prep time 15 minutes

Cook time 15 minutes

Total time 30 minutes

Misc Pre-preparable, Serve Hot

Occasion Christmas, Formal Party

By author Karen Burns-Booth


6 small apples, cored

6 teaspoons soft brown sugar

1 orange

6 cloves

1 cup confectioner’s sugar

8½ cups cider

1¼ cups port wine

1¼ cups sherry or Madeira

2 cinnamon sticks

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 lemon, halved


Step 1: Pre-heat oven to 200C/400F.

Step 2: Cut around the middle of each apple with a sharp knife and place them in an oven proof dish. Fill each apple core cavity with a teaspoon of sifted brown sugar. Stick the cloves in the orange and place it with the apples in the dish. Add a little water, about 6 tablespoons and roast in the pre-heated oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the apples are soft but still retain their shape.

Step 3: Leave the apples in the dish to keep warm and take the orange out – cut it in half and place it in a large sauce pan. Add the rest of the ingredients and the juices from the apple roasting dish to the sauce pan and gently heat until the sugar has dissolved.

Step 4: Bring the mixture to a boil and then turn it down immediately and keep it warm until you need to serve it.

Step 5: When you are ready to serve the wassail, ladle the fruit and spices into a large punch bowl and then pour the wassail into the bowl. Add the apples by floating them on top and serve straight away in warmed mugs or cups.

Step 6: The apples can be eaten afterwards as a delectable dessert with cream or custard.

* I have Americanized ingredient measurements as needed, turning grams and liters into cups of the alternate amount as closely as I can.

  1. In a post dated January 4, 2015 by Karen Burns-Booth on her website: Lavender and Lovage

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