12/14/2012 09:06 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2012

Wassail: What Is It, Anyway?


What Is It Anyway? is a series that examines the histories behind peculiar and obscure foods. Today, we're explaining wassail.

You've probably heard, or even sung, the popular Christmas tune, "Here we come a-wassailing," be it a high school choir rendition or a rock band cover. In spite of the song being incredibly catchy and annoyingly repetitive, we're willing to bet that many of those who utter the word "wassail" have no idea what it means.

So, what is it, anyway?
Wassail is a mulled Yuletide punch, served hot. The ingredients of the cider include nutmeg, cinnamon, sugar and ginger, all added to a base of wine or juice. Today, brandy, sherry, and fruits such as apples are typically involved as well, although at the time of the drink's conception, it more closely resembled a mulled beer served with toast. To honor this tradition, modern wassail is still served with toast.

The drink usually accompanies the act of wassailing, or singing Christmas carols either from door-to-door, or in apple orchards to encourage a successful harvesting season.

Wassail has a rich linguistic history, as the term is as old as Old English itself. Derived from the Old Norse "ves heil" and the Old English "was hál," the term was originally a greeting that meant "be in good health." Danish natives in England added to this a reply of "drink hail," a toast that became the norm in the country by the 11th century.

By the 13th century, the use of the wassail bowl had become popular. At that time, it was made of wood or pewter and was used to contain liquids in which breads or cakes could be dipped. From the 14th century through the Renaissance, wassailing involved passing around a single bowl. After taking a drink, the bowl would be passed to the next person accompanied by a kiss. The act of wassailing to promote the growth and wellness of crops emerged in Medieval Britain, and by 1600 the act of carrying the beverage door-to-door while singing had emerged.

This early caroling sprung from the concept of "misrule," or the act of traditional social rules being ignored during the holiday season. During this time, the well-off were expected to share their wealth with poorer citizens by inviting them to dine in their homes. Songs were sung in exchange for this hospitality.

In popular culture
Wassail was referenced in English literature as early as the 8th century, when it appeared in Beowulf:

"The rider sleepeth,

the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,

in the courts no wassail, as once was heard."

How you can enjoy it
Alton Brown's wassail recipe from
Wassail made with tea from Better Homes and Gardens
Traditional wassail from Imbibe Magazine
Warm cranberry wassail from Ocean Spray

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