Wassail!

SEVENTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
New Year’s Day

The passage over the bridge has been made and now we’ve crossed over into the Six Days of Christmas that are in the new year. You’ll find these six days more contemplative, I think, and a bit less rambunctious. When the Puritans banned Christmas in Britain and New England, it was mainly a reaction to this annual bout of national rowdiness. Christmas back then was not so much a holy time but more a time of drunken revelry. It was everything the Puritans despised. Their opposition to the season changed Christmas forever. It was not widely celebrated here in the States until writers revived an interest in it. Washington Irving was probably the first to push the idea of a revival of the Old Christmas ways, writing about old English customs that had long since faded away. And then of course came Charles Dickens. The new reinvented version of Christmas, steeped in Victorian ideals, still very much informs the celebration in both countries today. One curious difference between England and the States is the use of the greeting Merry Christmas here versus the more common Happy Christmas in the old country. When Christmas was being reinvented in England, the temperance movement was quite strong. “Happy Christmas” seemed more proper, a bit distanced from the merriness (ahem, drunkenness) of Christmas past, and so that greeting was encouraged in the UK and took hold there. That wasn’t the case in the States, and, oddly enough, we ended up with the more British sounding “Merry Christmas.” It is perhaps the one time a year that we use the word merry at all. I’m glad we do. I’m not one to promote drunkenness, but I’m not one to promote temperance, either. Our motto: “All things in moderation.”

And so for today, the First Day of the New Year, it is customary to brew and drink wassail. It is a delicious hot punch and I encourage you to join in the tradition. The punch is called wassail and the toast is “Wassail!” as well…  from the old English Wes Hel, “be of good health.” The New Year’s Day custom would have us toast each other, as well as the apple trees in the orchard, should you happen to be near one. We are not (apples do not grow in Florida; not that I’m aware of, anyway) but Seth Thompson and I have been known to drink our wassail, toast each other, and go out to the yard and toast some of our fruit trees, too: Wassailing the mango tree, the carambola tree, the cocoanut palms. Tradition, like language, is a living thing. It is perfectly fine (in the Convivio approach, anyway) to shape tradition around your particular reality. Here is our wassail recipe:

Convivio Wassail
Pour the contents of two large bottles of beer or ale (about 4 pints) into a pot and place it on the stove to heat slowly. Add about a half cup sugar and a healthy dose of mulling spices. (If you don’t have mulling spices on hand, you can use cinnamon sticks and whole cloves… though the mulling spices lend a more interesting flavor.) Add a half pint each of orange juice and pineapple juice, as well as the juice of a large lemon. Peel and slice two apples and place the apple slices into the pot, too. Heat the brew but don’t let it boil, then pour the heated wassail into a punchbowl to serve.

Custom calls for us to share the wassail with those gathered but also to take the steaming punch bowl out to the orchard and toast the apple trees and share some with the oldest or biggest tree in the grove. Some folks pour the wassail on the trunk of the tree, while others dip the lower branches into the wassail bowl, and others may place wassail-soaked toast or cake in the branches of the tree. All of which are invocations of magic meant to encourage a good crop of apples next summer. Traditionally, the wassailing of the apple trees is done at the noon hour. Again, we believe you’d do best to let tradition inform your ways, but not dictate how your days go. So if your wassail happens to be late at night, there’s no harm in that. Wes Hel! Huzzah and cheers! And a happy new year to us all.

Image: Detail from “The Wassail” from the Ladies’ Luncheon Room, Ingram Street Tea Rooms by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1900. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

11 thoughts on “Wassail!

  1. Dee says:

    This is an interesting. (Of course, in these current freezing temperatures, anything warm to drink is most welcome.)
    Happy New Year, John and Seth.

  2. Carolyn Converse Cooper says:

    Interesting to see a CR Mackintosh painting! Mackintosh’s original decorations still survive in the Willow Tea Room on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. You might like the painting “The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe” by George Henry and EA Hornel, from the same period and region: it’s definitely a snowy scene. What’s a little snow?

    Thanks, and Happy New Year

    • John Cutrone says:

      Thank you for the suggestion, Carolyn, I just saw it online thanks to you! The scene is snowy indeed and extraordinary. Do you know if the Ingram Street Tea Rooms still exist? Are (or were) these tea rooms restaurants, basically, that focused on afternoon tea?

      Thanks for writing, and happy new year!

    • John Cutrone says:

      I should point out that the Mackintosh painting we have featured today is just the center of a larger, quite symmetrical scene.

  3. Marjorie Hollis says:

    Fascinating information once again, particularly as it is delivered in your always-enchanting writing style. I love this: “Tradition, like language, is a living thing. It is perfectly fine (in the Convivio approach, anyway) to shape tradition around your particular reality.”

    Thank you for your lovely Book of Days posts.

    Wishing you and Seth a peaceful, loving and joyous New Year!

    • John Cutrone says:

      Oh thank you, Marjorie. I do believe traditions should guide us but not enslave us. Plus we don’t seem to have the same luxuries of time that most our ancestors did. They definitely worked hard, but I think in general they also had more time to call their own. Our modern ways are very hectic by comparison, and it’s not always possible to follow the traditions fully. Hence, use them as a guide. That’s our philosophy, anyway.

  4. Paula Marie Gourley says:

    The particular reality here, in the chilly Pacific Northwest and tempered by flu, is cracking open a jar of drunken cherries, put up last June in sugared vodka, for just such a situation! Wes hel and cheers! The cherries have a crisp crunch…perfection. A toast to you!

    • John Cutrone says:

      Whoo! That sounds delightful, Paula. My grandparents would put up cherries in alcohol each year, too. Mom talks about them and how much she enjoyed them, but we never make them. A project to look forward to for next summer. Do you use any special type of cherry? Sweet cherries? Sour?

  5. Carolyn Converse Cooper says:

    Regarding your question about the Willow tea rooms, yes, they were restaurants where ladies (and gentlemen) could meet for tea and lunch. I mentioned the one on Sauchiehall St as it was the only original one left (I’ve had tea there). They are now moving the tea-operation out of the building to an old department store along the street, and the original Rennie Mackintosh building is being restored (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-36478526). There is no “Willow” tea room left on Ingram St but a new company has built one nearby on Buchanan Street which is an imitation of the original (designed to catch tourists I would guess).

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