The general opinion is that wassailing is all about the apples and/or an ancient pagan ritual. Neither is true, but the origins are interesting nevertheless. Earliest traces are to a simple Anglo-Saxon/Old Norse toast — Waes Hael! — which translates to “be hale!” To this wish for good health, a fellow drinker would respond, Drinc Hael! As may be obvious, this greeting is very similar to our modern toast “Here’s to your health.” The drink itself would be in a communal bowl passed from person to person, the greeting repeated as each drank. The tradition was so enmeshed into the old English culture that even when the Normans conquered the land they too adopted the custom.
The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard. ~Beowulf, 8th century
Recording similar usage, the anonymous Anglo-Norman Poet, who witnessed the Saxon toasting cry before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, wrote:
Rejoice and wassail
Pass the bottle and drink healthy
Drink backwards and drink to me
Drink half and drink empty.
Written in 1135, Geoffrey of Monmouth related one story explaining the toast’s origin in History of the Kings of Britain–
While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is ‘drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”
Wassail evolved to denoted the drink used for the toast. Spiced wine survived into the early Middle Ages as a libation for the wealthy, the necessity of importing wine and spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg from outside England making it a costly drink. Later fine ales replaced the wine for a more affordable option, and recipes varied according to the means of each family. Though usually prepared for immediate consumption, wassail was bottled and allowed to ferment.
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.
Wassail recipes abound since each family pridefully concocted their unique beverage and guarded the secret zealously. The only constants were liquor of some kind as the base, serving it in an enormous bowl to communally dip one’s mug into or drink directly from, toasted bread floating atop to soak up the liquid, and lifting your glass heavenward and shouting “waes hae” – meaning, be healthy. And, yes, this is the genesis of “toasting.”
8 small apples, cored
2 1/2 c. firmly packed brown sugar
3 qt. ale or beer
1 fifth sweet sherry (or rum, brandy, wine, etc.)
4 slices fresh ginger
1 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. mace
4 whole cloves
4 allspice berries
6 eggs, separated
1 c. brandy, heated
8 slices buttered toast
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place apples in baking dish and sprinkle with 1/2 cup brown sugar. Bake 30 minutes. In large saucepan, heat ale or beer and sherry, remaining brown sugar and spices tied in a bag. Using a large bowl, beat egg yolks until thick.
Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form and fold into yolks. Slowly add liquid to eggs by tablespoons until about 1 cup has been added, then add remaining liquid in slow, steady stream beating well with whisk. Place baked apples in heated punch bowl, add liquid and stir in brandy. Serve at once with buttered toast quarters to float or dip in wassail.