Wassailing- you did what?! This is something I think is so cool. And something that also makes me feel like a huge dork, if I’m being perfectly honest. At least the Maple Bourbon Wassail recipe turned out AWESOME!
There are two parts to this: the act of Wassailing, and the drink Wassail.
Wassailing is a medieval Christmastide ritual that used to be (and actually still is!) practiced in England in order to bless the apple trees so that they will bear plenty of fruit for cider. Basically a big drunken party in the orchard with singing, dancing, and a few odd rituals… it runs deep with history and it’s wonderfully weird. Perfect!
The drink Wassail is what you’ll have while you’re Wassailing- there are a lot of Wassail recipes, but typically it’s a hot mulled cider or ale, sweetened and spiced, sometimes made boozy, sometimes thickened with eggs, and sometimes topped with toast. From what I can tell, the drink should always have roasted apples- which will be bursting with pulp spilling out, resembling wool, giving wassail its alternative name “Lamb’s Wool.”
The hot Wassail is poured into a large vessel, topped with toast, and passed around so that everyone can take a drink. They would raise the glass above their heads and shout “Wassail,” which comes from “waes-hael,” meaning “to your health.” It is because of this type of celebration, we “raise a toast” when having drinks. Pretty neat, huh?
Yes, Karl and I made our very own wassail.
Wait, it gets better…
And then we made some toast.
And then we trudged out to the apple orchard, sang a little song, gave cheers, hung the toast in the tree, and poured the wassail on the ground. Yeah, we did that.
We thought about inviting our neighbors. We didn’t, and instead we hoped the neighbors didn’t see or hear us.
One of my favorite things about gardening, especially growing heirloom varieties… which extends into our orchard and the antique apple varieties we’ve planted, is how it makes me feel connected to the past. And I treasure that- the many generations of people who grew these things before me, who are the only reason I’m able to grow these same plants and trees today; like a gift, from someone I’ve never met, but I imagine was a lot like me. And I intend to do the same, to grow as many of these amazing things as possible, and carry on the traditions around them.
Karl and I Wassailed our orchard with enthusiasm and heart- which is the only way to Wassail. It was all in good fun. And we’ll have a bounty of apples this coming fall because of it, I’m sure!
Wassailing: How to Wassail an Apple Orchard
Find Something to Wassail
You don’t have to have an orchard- though Wassailing an apple orchard is traditional, you can Wassail anything that could use a blessing, like other crops or even livestock… though they may give you a funny look.
Pick a Date
Traditionally, Wassailing was done on twelfth night, or the twelfth day of Christmas… which, depending on which region and which calendar you follow, can occur on either January 5th, 6th, or 17th.
We picked “Old Twelvie,” the 17th of January, following the Julian calendar and honoring the position of the earth and sun relative to each other when this type of merrymaking first historically occurred. It also happened to be like -15 degrees here on January 5th and 6th, so there was that.
Really though, there’s probably never a “wrong time” to go Wassailing.
Select a King and Queen
These are important shoes to fill! The Wassailing ceremony is led by the king and queen, who take their followers dancing around the trees. The queen is lifted up into the oldest tree or sometimes the largest tree, the one supposed to have the greatest root structure and influence over the rest of the orchard- where she can spear onto the branches pieces of toast that have been soaked in Wassail, as an offering to the tree spirits of the orchard.
The King and Queen can be chosen in different ways, but my favorite is “election by cake.” Because why wouldn’t you elect someone by cake if that was an option?
A cake is baked, often called a King Cake or Twelfth Night Cake, and it’s filled with rum-soaked fruit and lots of spices (not unlike a fruit cake I imagine). A dried bean and dried pea are placed into the cake batter. The man who finds the bean will be the King; the woman who finds the pea will be the Queen. If a woman finds the bean, she gets to choose the King, and vice versa.
It was just the two of us, Karl and I. But I’m sure I would have been the one to find the pea anyways… naturally.
Make the Wassail
There are a LOT of Wassail recipes out there- with a lot of different variations. I imagine that because of the time period that this tradition dates back to, it was a “use what you have” kinda concoction- which happens to be my favorite type!
While the earliest Wassail probably never contained bourbon, ours does- because it’s what we keep on hand and it’s what we like to drink… so while maybe it’s not totally traditional, it’s still in the spirit of the festivities. Plus, apple + maple + bourbon are pretty good friends!
For our Wassail I chose a base of apple cider we made the previous year- if you have it, using something homemade from the orchard you’re wassailing is encouraged. If you want to really party, you should use hard cider.
Add a little sweetener and some warm winter spices- whatever you like… cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, allspice, orange. Heat everything together gently, and add your hard liquor, your eggs, and your toast. Kidding- you don’t really have to include eggs and toast. I didn’t, which maybe makes me a medieval party pooper, but I wanted to make something we’d actually enjoy drinking.
You’ll find my Maple Bourbon Wassail Recipe at the bottom of this post.
Wake the Tree
Use sticks to tap on the tree branches -gently- to wake up the apple tree. It’s been a long winter, just let it know you’re there. Wake it up in the way you’d want to be woken up right before a bunch of apple-enthusiasts who’ve been drinking start to serenade you.
Choose Your Wassailing Song
The Gloucestershire Wassail is our favorite version- give it a listen. It’s catchy!
You may even find yourself humming it around the house…
This is the song we both loved- Karl sang and I played the sleigh bells! We made it our by changing the names and making up a few verses of our own.
When everyone has raised a toast to the tree and taken a drink of Wassail, the tree gets one too- just pour a little bit onto the ground where the roots are. The queen should then place the Wassail-soaked toast into the tree, pierced onto a branch.
Put on a Show
Not only is there singing, dancing, and general merrymaking, Wassailing celebrations often included short plays and skits, performed around the apple trees. It can be whatever your imagination can come up with… but there is usually a bad guy and some good guys, and of course the good guys always win, often with much cheering from the crowd.
Torches and lanterns are optional.
Get Rid of Those Evil Sprits
This is the last piece to round out your orchard Wassailing! And it’s where you can really let your personality shine- from banging on pots and pans to firing off shotguns… as folks dance around the trees, others make the loudest noise they can to scare evil spirits out of the orchard.
We didn’t figure we had too many evil spirits, so we left the shot gun in the house and opted for banging some large sticks together.
And Now, We Feast!
You aren’t required to have a feast at your Wassailing celebration, but in my opinion most good parties do.
After we were done Wassailing the orchard, we retreated back to the house, bellies warm with cider, for a homegrown dinner of venison stew and honey cakes. A majority of the ingredients in our feast were produced right here, from the meat and most of the veggies in the stew, to the honey, eggs, and raspberries used in the cake were produced right here on the homestead- our little piece of this world that we care for, and in turn cares for us.
Maple Bourbon Wassail Recipe
Serves 4, recipes easily doubles or triples!
For the Roasted Apples:
4 small apples
1/4 cup maple syrup
4 tsp salted butter
For the Wassail:
1 medium to large organic orange
4 cups unsweetened apple cider
1/3 cup real maple syrup
2 tsp salted butter
1/2 tsp apple pie spices (yes, this one is worth the price)
Bourbon, for serving (optional)
To make the roasted apples: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Scoop out the core from the top of the apple, leaving a well. Do not cut all the way through the apple. Fill each apple hole with 1 teaspoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of maple syrup. Place the apples into a pie pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the apples have softened. Save any drippings from this pan to add into your Wassail.
Use a paring knife or sharp peeler to cut a few strips of zest (take care not to get the white pith underneath the skin) from the orange first. Next, squeeze the juice from the orange and put it into a pot along with the zest strips, apple cider, maple syrup, butter, and spices. Whisk to incorporate the spices and mix everything together.
Heat over low, allowing the ingredients to steep in the cider without boiling it, for about 10-15 minutes, or until just starting to simmer. Try not to let the mixture come to a boil.
Serve the Wassail from a bowl, with the roasted apples “lamb’s wool” floating in it.
In a mug (or a white maple bowl if you’ve got one!) put 1-2 ounces of bourbon, and pour over about 1 cup of the warm Wassail.
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