How to Make Wassail: A Traditional Christmas Mulled Cider
Here We Come A-Wassailing
I attended a tiny middle school founded in 1780 that was set way back in the Appalachian mountains. Needless to say, there were quite a few well-entrenched traditions, including an event at Christmas that involved a lot of caroling.
"Here We Come A-Wassailing" is one of the carols I remember best, although for years I had no idea just what it meant. It wasn't until about a decade ago that I figured out that wassail was a drink, not necessarily an event. This realization did not detract from the delight that ten-year-old me took in the old Christmas carol.
Wassail is actually both a beverage and an event. Originally, it involved making a punch during the holidays and carrying it door-to-door through town. The carriers of the punch either gave it out, demanded gifts from the homeowners, or both. Apparently, the tradition occasionally involved pouring punch on trees, proving once and for all that some of our holiday celebrations make no sense whatsoever. That doesn't make them any less fun, though—or less delicious.
I think the original punch most likely contained copious amounts of alcohol, which meant the tree-drinking was at least a bit more understandable, if no less illogical. Wassail is like eggnog in that respect. This version is alcohol-free, although you could certainly add a good shot of bourbon or rum if you'd like.
I make mine in the slow cooker now, although an ordinary stovetop will work just as well. If you use a slow cooker, just set it for four to six hours. If you're doing it on the stovetop, keep your pot on a mere simmer for about two hours or so. Either way works just fine. My favorite thing about making wassail is that it involves throwing the ingredients into a pot and letting it do its thing while I do something else, which I love. Who needs more fussiness during the holidays?
- 1 gallon apple cider
- 2–3 cinnamon sticks
- 1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 24 whole cloves (24 cloves is a lot—you may want to use fewer, but I like to use a good amount because I love their flavor)
- 2 oranges, halved
- 2 lemons, halved
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Place apple cider in a crockpot. You can also let it simmer on the back of the stove in a Dutch oven if you like. If you do this, you'll have to remember to stir it and cook it for only half as long.
- Add cinnamon sticks, allspice, and brown sugar. Stir.
- Press the whole cloves into the skin of the oranges and lemons.
- Cut the citrus fruits in half. Add them to the crockpot with the cider.
- Add freshly grated nutmeg.
- Cover the crockpot and set to low.
- Cook for 4–6 hours.
- Serve hot. Merry Christmas!
The Origins of Wassail
Nobody actually knows how to make "traditional" wassail. The origins of the drink date back to the Middle Ages. Wassail recipes weren't written down until the middle of the 19th century, so it's difficult to say how closely our modern concoctions resemble the wassails of the past. It is likely that the beverage originally contained far more spices than it does today. It probably included mace and likely featured higher concentrations of cloves and nutmeg. This may be why the wassails of the past were laced with so much alcohol. Modern palettes are very different, however, and this recipe reflects that.
Lyrics: "Here We Come A-Wassailing"
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy unto you
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a happy New Year
And God send you a happy New Year.
Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbors' children,
Whom you have seen before.
Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.
We have got a little purse
Of stretching leather skin;
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.
Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a moldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf
God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.
Good master and good mistress,
While you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.
Some more modern versions of the carol replace "wassailing" with "caroling," but the original version was all about wassail. It was traditionally sung around Christmas or New Year's.
© 2017 Jan Charles