Was Hail! Drink Hail!
December 25, 2009 3:25 PM   Subscribe

Winter holiday traditions change with time and location, with their current forms retaining little of their old forms, wassailing (rhymes with fossil-ing) possibly more than most. The modern interpretation of wassailing has been simplified to singing carols, though it was born of much more diverse traditions, from a cheer of good health before battle to scaring evil spirits from apple orchards. From these origins come wassail the drink, and that's just one of the many foods of the winter season (Food Timeline prev., 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). A few more are covered below the break.

The term "wassail" goes back to the time of the writing of Beowulf, as a toast to good health, and a Saxon toast before battle. Then there was the wassail to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit, also known as the Apple Wassail, which is practiced or reenacted to this day. The Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare / Holy Mary) wassail (mentioned prev.) is a Welsh practice of wassailing, where wassailers go door-to-door with a horse figure, challenging households to singing competitions of sorts. Another form of wassailing was that of a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants , or perhaps wealthy lords inviting their poor subjects into the manor to feast. This has continued, in so much as neighbors sing some version of a wassailing song to neighbors.

What better to keep you warm on winter nights than a warm, spiced cider? The old forms of wassail (the drink), also called lambswool (for the light color and frothy appearance of the creamy, egg and apple mixture). Wassail was covered (simplified vegan version) on Alton Brown's Good Eats as part of the Christmas/winter holiday special (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5; more Good Eats from YouTube user GoodETV). If this historic take is overly complex, Sandra Lee has a recipe, too (prev. holiday fun with Sandra Lee). Much more on the tradition of wassail(ing) at The Web's Wassailing Epicenter.

In Ireland, Christmas Eve is a day of fasting, with the meal of the day being fish. When the Irish came to the United States, they brought their tradition, with fish being replaced by oysters, which might be sent inland via train. Far from the coast, oyster became a symbol of the arrival of the winter holiday season. Good Eats has a recipe here, too: roast duck with oyster dressing (more oyster dressing recipes on Food Network). Duck was chosen to replace the traditional Christmas Goose (recipe, or from Gordon Ramsey), which is an acquired taste and rather rare in the US.

The making of gingerbread goes back a long centuries, but not in the current form of gingerbread men and houses. The former is credited to Queen Elizabeth I, or or so the story goes. If you're looking to cooking up something from the past, try your hand at some old recipes (from the fifteenth through nineteenth century).

In Wales, toffee is traditional. More traditional Christmas sweets.
posted by filthy light thief (8 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Ye Gods, now THAT is a Christmas post. I'm recovering from feeding delicious traditional morsels to 16 people and I've eaten myself nearly spherical, but this damn post has got me making shopping lists and planning further experiments. Curse you filthy light thief! I'd shake my fist at you but I'm too tryptophan-lethargic to lift it!! Favourited about a million times.
posted by ninazer0 at 6:34 PM on December 25, 2009

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year !
posted by nola at 6:38 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some of this is late (I've been cobbling together links for weeks, and only had enough time to put it all together today), but wassail is associated with Twelfth Night (which marks the end of the Christmas season, and the beginning of Carnivale in Italy). Twelfth Night or Epiphany Eve, the last time to eat mince pies, starts on the evening of January 5 and goes until January 6th (though it used to be January 17 (old style), as opposed to January 6, New Style). This gives you time to try out a variety of wassail recipes, as some find Alton Brown's historic take less than appealing ("I have to admit that it isn't the most disgusting thing I've ever put in my mouth... oh, lord, it isn't good.")
posted by filthy light thief at 6:51 PM on December 25, 2009

Cool post! I first learned about wassailing from a children's VHS, where puppets sung the traditional song to a couple of old fogies who kept mistaking the word "wassail" for something else. ("What? You want a waffle?")

I wish I could find it, it made a big impression on me.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:57 PM on December 25, 2009

Steeleye Span - Gower Wassail
posted by various at 9:10 PM on December 25, 2009

Solon and Thanks, were you thinking of this?
posted by MissNefertiti at 9:43 PM on December 25, 2009

Oh, Solon and Thanks, I know exactly what you are talking about (although I can't remember what program it was), and it had a big impression on me as well!! And I totally remember the California Raisins Christmas special. I can't believe there was a time when raisins, of all things, were kitschy and cool :).

But here's my question, in the song, that line "And to you your wassail too," what is the wassail referring to here? It doesn't seem to be the caroling or the drink or the toast.
posted by bluefly at 5:06 AM on December 26, 2009

My introduction to the word "wassailling" was in watching the first Christmas episode of Family Guy.

Needless to say, I was pretty confused.
posted by Target Practice at 9:31 PM on December 26, 2009

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