It's one of those old Christmas traditions that nearly everyone has heard of, many have plans to execute, but few ever pull the trigger on. With the deranged commercialization of the holidays, making a wassail just seems like too much trouble. You've got things to do, and that credit limit isn't going to blow itself up without help.
The very word "wassail" is old — Pagan-era old. "Waes hael" was a traditional Saxon greeting meaning "to your health." And they did a lot of drinking to health in those days. It was important because the Saxons were short on modern medicine and long on marauding Norsemen. A drink might ward off an infection, but it's hardly a hedge against being cloven in twain by a Dane.
By 1066, when the Normans showed up in England, wassailing was a solid tradition, and not necessarily a Christmas one. In the November harvest, revelers would head out to the apple orchard, where they soaked pieces of toast in cider and put them up in a tree to attract robins, which were believed to carry good spirits. Then they yelled and carried on to scare off the evil spirits and, presumably, those lucky robins. What it lacked in effectiveness it made up for in style, and to this day we "toast" one another for good fortune.
All this good cheer was consumed from a communal wooden bowl, creepily called "The Loving Cup." They'd drink, lift the bowl over their heads, and yell "Wassail." If you are keeping track, Wassail has gone from a greeting, to a cheer, to a verb and a noun. Sort of like "Roll Tide" with 'Bama fans.
The point was to get drunk enough to sing to a tree. At some point, city-folk decided that the whole thing sounded like a hoot. Lacking apple orchards in the grimy alleys of London, wassailing got moved to Christmas, and the town-folk just got drunk enough to sing to a door. From there it quickly devolved into an inebriated caroling/trick-or-treat mash-up. Except this wasn't a couple of adorable neighborhood kids dressed like princesses and firefighters, but a half-in-the-bag horde of your social inferiors demanding that you fill up their creepy drinking bowl and, because it's cold outside, make with some munchies, while you're at it.
"And we won't go until we've got some/ We won't go until we've got some, so bring some out here." Sounds a lot less quaint coming from a well-gassed mob. At any rate, people started making a festive punch to slosh out to the wassailers so they'd eventually go away.
- Rafer | Dreamstime
Here's a very traditional Anglo-Saxon Christmas Wassail you can try at home, just so you're prepared:
6 small apples, cored
6 tsp soft brown sugar
7 oz. extra-fine sugar
water for sprinkling
3 ½ pints cider
10 ½ fl. oz. port
10 ½ fl. oz. sherry or madeira
2 cinnamon sticks
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
1 lemon, halved
Stud the orange with cloves to feel like a celebrity chef. Core the apples and sprinkle with sugar and water. Bake the orange and apples at 375°F for 30 minutes or until tender. Leave apples in the dish to keep warm and take the orange out. Cut in half and place in a large saucepan. Add the rest of the ingredients and the juices from the apple roasting dish to the saucepan, and gently heat until the sugar is dissolved. Do not boil. Leave for 30 minutes. Strain and pour over the roasted apples.
If that sounds like too much trouble, here's another option. In college, I learned a simplified version at a Christmas party in Mobile, Alabama: Fill up a coffee percolator with vodka, and heat it up. Add a bunch of Red Hots candy. Serve warm.
I have no idea how my college-mates made the leap from making wassail to making this horrific concoction. And if I'm going to be completely honest, at the time, I didn't much care.