December 22, 2011 | by Robin Bellinger
My school’s Wassail Party was held in the upper-school cafeteria, at night. For us lower-schoolers, it was thrilling. We were not usually welcome on the big kids’ campus, but after the annual candlelight service we were invited to eat miniature candy canes and Pepperidge Farm cookies in their vast, dim, low-ceilinged, linoleum-floored refectory. There was a big bowl of cold lime-sherbert punch, surrounded by elegant plumes of dry-ice smoke and a big bowl of warm, spiced apple juice—our wassail. When we were slightly older, we could join the choir that performed in the candlelight service. “Wassail, wassail, all over the town,” we sang, “Our bread it is white, and our ale it is brown!” It felt quietly subversive even to sing the word ale, since we were, in our red jumpers and green neck ribbons, as wholesome as the gingerbread and apple juice served after the concert.
Wassail means “be thou hale,” and it’s what English farmers traditionally consumed to drink to the health of their apple trees on Christmas Eve or Twelfth Night Eve. The rite itself was also called wassailing and generally called for a bowl of hard cider or apple-spiked ale to be paraded about the orchard. The spirits of the trees were toasted; scraps of booze-soaked toasted bread were tossed into the branches; roots were given a dram. The assembly chanted,
Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Bushel, bushel sacks-full!
And my pockets full, too! Hurra!”
Then there was a general racket of pots and pans and instruments and even gunfire to drive evil spirits from the trees.
Robert Herrick wrote “Wassaile the trees that they may beare / You many a plum and many a pear.” He wrote of the other kinds of “sphering about the wassail cup,” too. A group might gather in any season to drink to each other’s health and the health of the house, using for this purpose a common bowl of a drink called lambswool: brown ale “spiced to the brink” and filled with mashed, cooked apples (the name makes sense if you look at the collapsed flesh of roasted apples). In the rowdy days of a seventeenth-century Christmas, a group would gather with such a bowl and carry it from house to house, dispensing drink and good wishes; this, however, was not so much a freely given blessing as a vaguely threatening request for some sort of payment or treat. And woe be to the stingy!
—Alas! We bless, but see none here,
that brings us either ale or beer;
In a dry-house all things are near.
It is in vain to sing, or stay
Our free feet here, but we’ll away:
Yet to the Lares this we’ll say:
‘The time will come when you’ll be sad,
‘And reckon this for fortune bad,
‘T’ave lost the good ye might have had.’
Since its practitioners were drunken adults, this type of wassailing was much more uneasy-making than Christmas caroling or even trick-or-treating. It is not hard to find reports of Christmas revelers in England and its colonies who did more than withhold blessings when greeted with tight fists. The brazen broke into the storerooms whose fruits they’d been denied; sometimes they even made themselves comfortable before their victim’s hearth before tucking into their plunder. There was a counterreaction, of course. English Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in 1652, as their colonial counterparts would in 1659 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was the original war on Christmas; you can see for yourself how it turned out.
Lacking the nerve to swipe booze and snacks from my neighbors, I recently mixed up my own lambswool wassail at home. I cut four apples into large wedges, leaving the peels on, and spread them in a single layer in a baking dish. I sprinkled them with two tablespoons of brown sugar and a half teaspoon of cinnamon and dotted them with two tablespoons of butter. They roasted in a four-hundred-degree oven for about forty-five minutes—I gave them a couple of stirs in that time—until they were very completely soft. When they were cool enough to touch, I picked out the peels and scraped the caramelized apple mash into a saucepan. To this I added four bottles of ale, a cinnamon stick, and four scrapes of nutmeg, and then I put the saucepan over a low flame until the ale was warm. Be careful not to let it boil! After about a quarter hour, I figured the flavors had had a chance to come together, and I ladled out a mug. I am very sorry to report that it tasted like warm ale with faint notes of applesauce and cinnamon; I had expected it somehow to become the warm, sweet, spicy apple juice of my youth. I added some honey and a healthy slug of virgin apple cider, but the hot, bitter ale easily overpowered the sugar. My wassail ended its life as a sauce for pork chops (deglaze, bubble, thicken). Next time I crave a festive bowl, I’ll try hard apple cider or nonalcoholic cider spiked with bourbon.
Even in America, spiked apples had their day. Thoreau was intoxicated by the wild apples he discovered on his long tramps through rural New England—sometimes literally. In an essay in The Atlantic Monthly in November of 1862, he describes wild apples left on the tree through the first frosts of December but gathered before the hard freeze of January, and says they have fermented enough to make the eater giddy. He mentions the English way of wassailing the apple trees, but his interest is in trees that make their own way, not the ones that must be coddled and coaxed. He disdained the cultivars recommended by “pomological gentlemen,” since a nursery variety is too known to be sublime. He believed that “nectar and ambrosia are only those fine flavors of every earthly fruit which our coarse palates fail to perceive, just as we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing, it.”
Whether your governing genius is the virgin mother or the meditative American, Herrick’s household spirit, or something even older and more sylvan, on a dreary day you might take an apple. Take a bite. There is ambrosia in the fruit and the light in the days of darkness. Chop it up and make it into something celebratory. I love apple pie and apple crisp and even simple applesauce (as long as it isn’t mixed with hot ale), but the best and most holiday-worthy apple treat I’ve made in recent years was a batch of apple-cinnamon rolls. I had long avoided the recipe in Karen DeMasco’s excellent The Craft of Baking because I was nervous about working with brioche dough, but I should have trusted that she would not lead me astray (she says she got the recipe from Pierre Hermé). The bouncy, buttery dough was actually fun to work with—I laughed aloud while “kneading” it by tossing it around—and yielded buns whose soft, close, golden crumbs would be the pride of any bakery. Since you can do all the work but slicing and baking up to a week in advance, these sweet rolls would make a perfect breakfast on Christmas or New Year’s Day.
Robin Bellinger cooks dinner every night in Wellesley, Massachusetts.