Tonight is Twelfth Night – the traditional time to Wassail.
Obviously the national lockdown means that we can’t go a-wassailing with anyone else, but the night is chilly and we’ll seize any excuse to tramp about the vineyard singing and slurping.
If you brush off you Old Norse you’ll remember that ‘Wassail’ comes from ‘ves heil’ which is a toast to your good health. Its the same ‘hale’ as in ‘hale and hearty’. You can wassail anytime you like, but its traditional to wassail on Twelfth Night – the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Today! I hope the 12 drummers drumming arrived safely.
Wassailing celebrates a good harvest, and encourages another one. People go to the fruit trees (usually apples but we prefer vines), sing to them, wish them health and share a little cider with them, and drink. It is all very jolly.
Historically, the wassailing bowl was a communal cup containing a hot mulled punch. They can be enormous and richly decorated. Jesus College Oxford has a wassail bowl covered with silver which holds 10 gallons (over 45 litres). This is seriously impressive given that it was taken ‘to go’.
Recipes vary, but wassailers usually drank warmed cider (or sometimes wine), flavoured with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg. Toast is floated on the top. If there’s a nip in the air – as there almost always is in winter- a tot or two of brandy or sherry was added. The toast, apple and orange are not just medieval cocktail embellishments, they are munched along the way.
The Wassail King and Queen leads the procession to the trees, while the crowd sings loudly to scare away evil spirits. They make loud noises, such as banging drums – so those twelve drummers drumming will come in handy after all. Sometimes shotguns are fired – which scares both evil spirits and me. You can encourage good spirits (which you’ll recognise as robins) by hanging alcohol-soaked toast in the branches.
The Wassail queen is usually a young girl . It helps if she is light because she will be hefted up into the branches to hang the soggy toast. If its done by a young boy he is nicknamed ‘Tom Tit’. The Wassail cup is spilt so that the tree gets its share – its a sort of offering.
In medieval times you could also drink ‘lambs wool’. Roasted crab apples were dropped into hot mead and burst open. Their frothy white fruit looked like fluffy little lambs.
Wassailing carols still survive. They are simple tunes to march to, and repeat ‘wassail’ a lot: ‘here we go a-wasailing, a-wasailing, a-wasailing…’ – you get the picture. Very good to keep in step though.
Wherever cider apples grow in England, wasailing persists. As you know, many former orchard sites make good vineyards, so its not surprising that wasailing has started in vineyards too. We’ll be toasting the vines tonight … just for fun. It may sound old-fashioned, but Wassailing is not extinct. You may think you don’t wassail as you stay nice and toasty warm indoors, but next you drink mulled wine or punch remember it started as a Wassail.
Whatever you are doing tonight, may we wish you a happy and healthy 2021.