Culinate

Be whole

A guide to wassail

By
December 19, 2011

“A toast!” we cry at the holiday office party. “To your health!” echoes across the clink of silver on holiday china. In that moment, among canapés and cocktail chat, we invoke an ancient tradition.

Some 16 centuries ago, so the story goes, a Saxon princess named Rowena was introduced to a British king, Vortigern, at a royal banquet. Raising her goblet of wine, she toasted him in a foreign tongue. “Ves heil,” she called. To which Vortigern’s advisors bade him respond, “Drinc heil,” and to drink from the goblet.

The exchange marked not only the beginning of a marriage, but also the popularization of the common Old Norse greeting — literally, “be whole,” meaning “be well” — as a drinking salutation. The call-and-response was quickly absorbed into Old English vernacular, and the tradition of toasting with a communal bowl or goblet carried forth into the Middle Ages.

The toast of the season.

Special bowls, often crafted from wood or pewter, were used for holiday banquets. They came to be known as wassail bowls, and the drink they held — warm holiday ale or hard cider, rich with exotic spices like cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg — as wassail. Once the beverage had mulled over the fire, whole roasted crab apples and thin crisps of toast were added.

A medieval wassail bowl was offered first to the most esteemed guest by the host, who proclaimed, “Was hail!” To which the guest responded, “Drinc hail,” drank, and then passed the bowl along to the next guest, with the same call-and-response ceremony. The toasted bread floating in the bowl, of course, gave rise to the saying “A toast!” for the ceremony itself.

Wassail was also known as Lamb’s Wool because of the frothy surface formed by the bursting roasted apples. Popular variations included adding whipped raw egg and/or cream to produce a richer drink. By the time of the Tudor monarchs, Spanish sherry had become both a popular import and addition to holiday wassail, though some preferred the fortification of brandy.

Wassail went from drink to action in the 1600s, when holiday revelers began taking their bowls to the streets. “Wassailing” was a festive combination of caroling, begging, and merrymaking. Crowds carried the bowl from house to house, singing and offering a drink for a coin. An echo of this tradition lives on in the still-popular Christmas carol "Here We Come A-Wassailing."

In the West Country, home to England’s apple orchards, wassailing began as a pagan ritual to ensure a fruitful harvest. Farmers and revelers carried their bowl of steaming brew, made with cider instead of ale, to the orchards on January 5, commonly known as Twelfth Night. They’d surround the oldest tree in the orchard while their leader dipped a piece of toast in the mulled cider and placed it into the branches to entice good spirits. Then wassail was poured on the tree roots and the tree beaten with sticks and pots to keep away evil spirits.

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The wassailing tradition continues today only in a few rural areas of England, but its history shows that “being whole” and in “good health” is much more than a how-do-you-do. It’s sharing a communal cup, making an offering to the harvest gods, bringing Christmas cheer door-to-door.

And perhaps most importantly, it’s everyday language. It’s “cheers,” “salud,” and “prost.” It’s a greeting, an offering of daily well-being to our friends, family, and even the stranger on the next bar stool.

So this holiday season, gather a large group, dig out a giant bowl, and mull a batch of wassail, be it traditional or modern. Oh, and don’t forget the toast.

Nina Lary is a food, culture, and travel writer based in Portland, Oregon.