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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. Read More