More than a thousand years ago in England, the word “wassail” was first used as a greeting. This was the time of the dark ages after the Roman empire collapsed and its army departed from England. Without the Roman army's protection, the island's inhabitants suffered from wars and vicious attacks by Vikings, Germanic tribes, and other enemies. Derived from the Old Norse ves heil and Old English was hál—which meant “be in good health” and “be fortunate,” respectively—the words take on profound meaning in light of the deadly cultural and economic turmoil that embroiled the land.
Eventually, the ancient greeting was hál evolved into a traditional toast as well as a beverage by the same name. At Christmas time, English feudal lords opened their manor house and larder to the serfs who kept their estates in working order. The lord of the manor filled his bowl (that is, a cup or mug) with a mulled beverage made from wine or ale, then toasted the health and fortune of these laborers by wishing them “wassail”—good health and fortune. In exchange, the peasants felt kindly toward their "employer" and were inclined to serve him well throughout the year.
When my children were young, the first snowfall of winter not only heralded in the Yuletide season for my family but inspired the first of many simmering pots of wassail to be made in my kitchen during the cold months. The slanted rays of the sun in the western sky beckoned my lovelies to put their sleds in the garage and come indoors where they discarded their snow-covered boots and ice-crusted mittens by the door before scurrying to the blazing fire in our fireplace. Seated on the brick hearth next to dancing flames and crackling wood, the fingers of my rosy-cheeked offspring warmed as they gripped steaming cups of fragrant hot wassail. And of course, their sweet voices sometimes piped out the beloved wassailing song from earlier times ...
Photographs ©2017 Cynthia Howerter