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Wassailing the Apple Trees


Wassailing was an old country tradition that took place on Twelfth Night or "Old Christmas Eve," especially in areas where cider apples were grown. Right before dark that wassail (spiced ale or hard cider topped with roasted apples) would be prepared and ladled into the special wassail bowl (similar to a punch bowl with handles). The village would gather at the orchard after dark with the wassail on hand and proceed to bang pots, shoot off guns, and make a racket to frighten away any evil spirits that could still be lurking about on this last night of Christmas. This commotion would also help to begin to "wake up" the trees from their winter hibernation. The trees were blessed with thanks and urged with rhyming chants to produce an even better crop in the new year. The oldest, most venerable tree's health would be "toasted" with a piece of wassail-soaked bread or cake placed in its branches. 

If wassail was left over after regaling the trees, then the ceremonies would conclude with the villagers quenching their own thirst before returning home. In some areas, the young people would go from house to house in the village, singing wassail songs and receiving small gifts or treats in return.

Wassail is an old Middle English contraction of waes hael, meaning "be health" or "be whole," that was derived from the old Norse ves heill "to be healthy." The reply to waes hael was drinc hael, or "drink and be healthy." The modern expression "hale and hearty" shares the same roots.


A Swinging Wassail

  • 1 quart ale
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 5 or 6 pieces cracked ginger or 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 2 cups sherry wine
  • Juice and thinly pared rind of 1 lemon
  • Sugar, to taste
  • 2 slices toasted bread (if desired)
  • 6 or 8 baked crab apples or 2 or 3 baked large apples
* This recipe can be made non-alcoholic by replacing the ale and sherry with apple cider. Another way to do wassail is to have the             punch-mixture be alcohol free and have whisky or champagne available on the side for people to add as they please.

** English Farmer's Wassail - substitute hard cider for ale and 1 cup dark rum for sherry.

Heat ale in saucepan until just about to boil. Stir in spices, sherry, lemon juice, slivered rind and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves then cover and simmer over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes. Do not boil at any time. Remove from heat and either pour into punch bowl or individual cups and add toast (if desired) and apples. 
Recipe adapted from Visions of Sugarplums by Mimi Sheraton, 1981
Image: Wassailing the Apple Trees With Hot Cider in Devonshire on Twelfth Eve, artist unknown


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