There was a time and a place in which Christmas wasn't mainly about presents. In fact, there was a time when it wasn't even about Jesus.
This isn't going to be a lecture about the "reason for the season," although the people in this faraway time and place eventually did celebrate the birth of Jesus. This is about how they celebrated -- and what they ate and drank along the way.
You may have heard of wassail as a spiced wine, served hot. And that it is. It's also an expression from the Saxon days in 8th-century England. It means "be in good health." It would have been said as a greeting, farewell, or a toast -- the forebear of our "to your health!" A Saxon's response would have been drinc hail, or "drink good health." (The word "hail," by the way, is closely related to both our words health and hail, as in "to greet or salute.")
Eventually, wassail came to mean the wine being consumed, especially the spiced ale or mulled wine that was shared during winter festivals. When Christianity was introduced to England, winter festivals became Christmas festivals, and on Christmas Eve and on Twelfth Night (January 6th), folks would gather to celebrate the holiday with food, wine, and song.
And, as they did before Jesus got involved, they would bless the apple orchards by putting pieces of bread, soaked in cider, in the trees and firing guns to ward off evil spirits. This piece of bread was called "toast," and the tradition of "toasting" apple trees produced the expression "propose a toast."
Over the years, the whole celebration came to be called wassail -- there was also a verb, as in, "gather to wassail" -- and in typical modern fashion the only part of the tradition that survives is the drinking. We added the shopping.
So here's an idea of what an old wassail would look like -- and then we'll get to the wine.
In addition to the apple orchards, wassailing would happen in one's home or as a roaming, door-to-door party in which the revelers carried a bowl of wine and offered it, along with food and song, to whoever answered the door. Take out the wine and food, and you have what we now call Christmas caroling.
The idea spread. People would wassail wheat fields, beehives, New Year's Eve, Twelfth Night, and so on. The English, God bless 'em, were willing to wassail darn near anything.
So what where they drinking?
Coming up with a recipe for wassail is like getting one for chocolate chip cookies. Everybody has their own variation, which leads to two entertaining traditions: arguing about what goes in it and sampling some of everyone's. The basic, traditional recipe is a hot wine, served in a wood bowl. The ingredients back in the day would have depended on where one lived, social standing and wealth, and so on. Today, there are three variations in England: Apple/Ale, Bishop, and Posset.
A version of this less-fancy wassail is probably what was most commonly hauled around town. In a 375-degree oven, bake 1 and 1/2 pounds of cored apples for 45 minutes or until they burst. After they cool, remove the peel and mash the pulp. Heat one quart of ale in a pot, then blend in the apple pulp, 1 tablespoon of sugar, and 1/8 teaspoon each of ground ginger and nutmeg. Go to town.
So-called because ingredients such as citrus fruits and exotic spices would have been expensive and hard to find. Stud an unpeeled orange and/or a lemon with 12 to 18 whole cloves, then coat it thickly with brown sugar. Roast in a 350-degree oven until the sugar caramelizes into a crust. Cut the orange in quarters and place in a bowl. Simmer (in 1 cup of water) 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, a pinch each of powdered cloves and mace, 1/2 teaspoon each of allspice and ground ginger, and a strip of lemon peel. Simmer until the water is reduced by half. In a separate pot, heat 1 quart of port (or table) wine and a quarter-cup of brandy (not to boiling), then pour everything into the punch bowl and get ready to start singing.
This is an ancestor of eggnog. Combine 1/2 cup of sugar and 1 quart of dry sherry in a saucepan. Heat but do not boil, stirring frequently until the sugar is completely dissolved. Cool. Beat 18 eggs till thin and frothy, then add to the sherry along with two quarts of milk or half and half. Forget fat grams. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the drink coats a metal spoon. Dust with 2 teaspoons of ground nutmeg. Mmmm.
So there you have it: Christmas the old way, when people would roam around to see, toast, feed, and sing to their neighbors -- a fine tradition which seems ripe for reviving. So fill yourself a bowl, make some meat pies, get out there, and wassail!
Do the Wassail, by Conrad Jay Bladey, is available at Amazon.com and answers every question imaginable about this fine tradition.