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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Wassail Tradition by Cynthia Howerter

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.

The traditional liquid refreshment known as wassail was originally made from wine. The beverage was “mulled,” that is, heated, sweetened, and flavored with spices such as allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. The less affluent—peasants and later the working classcould not afford to purchase wine, so they substituted inexpensive ale.

Colonists from England brought their tradition of wassail across the Atlantic with them. During the colonial period, wine and ale were scarce in rural areas of the colonies, but the availability of apples from numerous orchards provided cider for the base for the ancient beverage. Colonists of the middling and upper classes in towns such as Williamsburg, Virginia, served wassail in punch bowls with rings of lemons or oranges afloat.

The keeping of traditions is important to me—especially those from colonial times, my favorite historical period. Traditions connect us to those who came before us. They are the substance of smiles and fond remembrances. They provide a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves.

Traditions connect us to those who came before us 

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 ...

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green, 
Here we come a-wand'ring so fair to be seen ...

My grown children now have their own homes and families, and the age-old traditions they experienced as they were growing up continue to be an important part of their lives. We can’t imagine celebrating the season of Christmas or experiencing the frostiness of winter days without a pot of wassail steaming on the stove. Perhaps the making, serving, and wishing of wassail will become a tradition in your family, creating memories that are long remembered.

Love and joy come to you, and to you, your wassail, too

Wassail to you, my dear friends,
Cynthia Howerter

The Howerter Family’s Wassail Recipe

½ gallon apple cider
¼ cup fresh lemon juice, seeds removed (about 2 lemons)
1 cup granulated sugar (or less - taste the cider first to determine its sweetness)
5 cinnamon sticks
1½ teaspoons whole allspice

            Pour apple cider into a large saucepan. Squeeze juice from fresh lemons and discard seeds. Add the lemon juice, sugar, and cinnamon sticks to cider. Put the whole allspice in a spice ball or infuser and submerge in cider.
            Place pan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until mixture starts to boil; reduce temperature and simmer for 15 minutes. Serve hot.
            Wassail can be stored in refrigerator in a sealed container once the beverage has cooled to room temperature.

            Yield: about twelve 6-ounce cups of wassail.

Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter grew up playing in Fort Rice, a Revolutionary War fort owned by family members, and lived on land in Pennsylvania once called home by 18th century Oneida Chief Shikellamy. Hunting arrowheads and riding horses at break-neck speed across farm fields while pretending to flee from British-allied Indians provided exciting childhood experiences for Cynthia and set the stage for a life-long love of all things historical. A descendant of a Revolutionary War officer and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), history flows through Cynthia's veins.

Photographs ©2017 Cynthia Howerter


  1. Excellent post, thank you. We make a similar recipe using red wine instead of apple juice.
    Karen on the French-German border

  2. Hi, Karen! I'm so glad you liked this article. It warms my heart that you and your family are continuing the wassail tradition - thank you for letting me know! Wassail, Karen.

  3. Loved this, Cynthia! We have "dabbled" in wassail over the years, but never known its rich history. Thank you!

  4. Oh, Susan, you are so dear. Isn't it wonderful to know the story behind the things in our lives? I just love history.

  5. Cynthia, I enjoyed learning about Wassail. I never realized it was a greeting, just thought of it as a drink. I have been thinking about making some for the last few days and after reading this I certainly will make some soon....from your recipe, thanks for sharing.
    Blessings....and wassail, Tina

  6. You are so dear, Mrs. Tina! Thank you for your kind words. Please let me know what you think of the wassail after you make it. I do hope you enjoy it. Wassail to you, Mrs. Tina!

  7. My "wassail" is apple juice simmered with cinnamon and cloves. Simple. Sweet. Hot. :)

    1. Hi, Pegg! Thanks for sharing your wassail recipe; it sounds wonderful. Wassail, Pegg.

  8. What a nice post, Cynthia, as we enter this Advent season. Your recipe is similar to mine. The best part is the wonderful fragrance throughout the house.

    1. Thank you, dear Janet! You're right about the fragrance; it's heavenly. My family also knows that I've made wassail the second they walk inside the house thanks to its lovely scent. Wassail, Janet.

  9. We love to drink it all winter. We usually use apple cider for it.

  10. Hi, Bev Duell-Moore! Thanks so much for reading the article and letting me know that wassail is a tradition in your family, too! How wonderful! Wassail, Bev. :)


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