"Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green/ Here we come a-wassailing, so fair to be seen."
What an odd song for Christmastime, when the leaves are off the trees. And most of us aren't even sure what "wassailing" is.
In fact, the "leaves so green" in this cheery carol probably refer to pre-Christian worship of the evergreen mistletoe by the Druids, and wassailing, of course, has to do with the search for something good and warming to drink. Hot beer, anyone?
In pagan and early Christian days, Northern Europeans of various stripes warmed the chilliest nights of the year with feasts and winter celebrations. Various accounts attribute the wassail tradition to Vortigern, a king of the Britons. He was feted by his Saxon allies, who welcomed him with a brimming bowl of hot ale. They greeted him with the words "Woes hoeil," the salutation for friends, and told him it translated to "Your health," to which the response was "Drinc hail"—roughly, "What're you having?"
From that ritual greeting, it is said, comes both our tradition of toasting and the term "wassail" for spiced winter drinks.
Here is a traditional wassail recipe, as described by historian Gregg Smith:
Put half a pound of sugar in a large bowl.
Pour in a pint of warmed beer.
Add some nutmeg and grated ginger and four glasses of sherry.
Top off with five pints of beer, then let it sit in a warm place for several hours. Before serving, float pieces of toast and slices of lemons on the top.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, pub landlords in England and Colonial America experimented with a variety of hot ale drinks, some meant to brace the drinkers against the chill, others concocted out of a belief that hot drinks were healthier than cold, and several appealing to the landlord's frugality.
Whistle Belly Vengeance, popular in Colonial Massachusetts, was clearly in the last category, and if the name is any reference to its effects on the digestion, we can be glad it fell out of vogue. The drink made a virtue out of beer that had been around too long. The tavern keeper simmered old beer in a kettle with molasses, crumbled "rye'n'injun" bread into the brew to thicken it and served the drink piping hot.
"Possets," popular around the same time, denote some variation on heated milk or cream mixed with spirits. For Sack Posset, cream was boiled with sugar, mace and nutmeg. Then equal measures of sack (sherry) and ale were boiled together with sugar. The two liquids were combined and left to stand, covered, by the fire for two or three hours. Then the drink was served hot, for its healthful benefits.
Drinks called "fustians" added another favorite ingredient—eggs—to make a sort of hot, boozy eggnog. Rum Fustian contained no rum but instead the beaten yolks of a dozen eggs, to which a quart of hot beer, a bottle of white wine, half a pint of gin, nutmeg, lemon, cinnamon and sugar were added. I'm not sure how many this was meant to serve, but it sounds like it would light up a small dinner party.
For Lamb's Wool, an English harvest drink served from early November through the winter, heated strong ale was mixed with ginger, nutmeg and sugar. Apples, roasted until their skins burst, were added to the hot beer immediately before serving: liquid apple pie with a kick.
A few years back, the Colonial concoction called "Flip" captured my imagination. I'm sure the colonists liked it for the same theatrical reason I did: Flip was heated by plunging a red-hot loggerhead from the open fire into the mug, a nifty solution if you don't have a microwave.
Following Smith's instructions, I filled a ceramic mug two-thirds full of strong beer. I sweetened it with sugar and molasses and added lemon rind and grated nutmeg. Next came a shot of rum; then I whipped a fresh egg into the mixture. Finally—short on loggerheads and not keen to stir my drink with an ash-covered poker from the barbeque—I heated a wooden-handled knife sharpener over a burner and plunged it into the Flip.
The mug steamed and overflowed with a satisfying hiss. No doubt in a 17th-century tavern, there would have been a large dog under the table to clean up the mess. The smell was lovely, the taste less so. As I sieved strands of cooked egg through my teeth, I wished I'd omitted one or more of the ingredients, including the beer.
We'll treasure these recipes for their historical insights and let modern brewers delight us with their myriad styles of winter beers, which work their holiday magic cool or, for some, heated.