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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

Away We Go Awassailing
by Bob Brooke


Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our bread it is white, and our ale it is brown
Our bowl It is made of the maple tree
So here, my good fellow, I'll drink to thee.

Wassailing is a very ancient custom that’s rarely done today. The custom predates the Battle of Hastings in England. However, historians believe its origins date to Ancient Rome, where people would make sacrifices to the Pomona, the Roman Goddess of Fruits. The word wassail originates from the Anglo-Saxon waes-hael, meaning “to your health.”

Originally, the wassail was a drink, made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar, served from huge cups or bowls. Wassailing was traditionally done on New Year's Eve and Twelfth Night, but some rich people drank wassail on all the 12 days of Christmas. The wassail drink mixture was sometimes called 'Lamb's Wool,” because of the pulp of the roasted apples looked all frothy and a bit like lambs wool.

One legend about the creation of wassailing says that a beautiful Saxon maiden named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting him with the words “waes hael.” Over the centuries, a great deal of ceremony developed around the custom of drinking wassail. Merrymakers carried the wassail bowl into a room with great fanfare while singing a traditional carol about the drink, and finally, they served the steaming hot beverage.

The Wassail Bowl
The wassail bowl, itself, was a monstrous thing. No ordinary cup would do for such a grand ritual. The oldest and grandest were those turned from a hard wood, but wassail bowls could also be made of pottery, silver, tin, or pewter. Jesus College, in Oxford University, has a wassail bowl sheathed in sterling silver that can hold 10 gallons of drink. These bowls often had many handles for shared drinking, as well as highly decorated lids.

Oliver Cromwell prohibited Christmas and its associated celebrations under his Puritanic rule, but the 1660 Restoration marked a resurgence of festive celebrations. As a result, many wassail bowls and cups that survive today date from the last four decades of the 17th century, when “old world” customs and trappings came back into fashion.

The first wassail bowls and cups made from Lignum Vitae appear to have been produced in Britain in the second quarter of the 17th century. The use of this material seems closely related to the expansion of Britain’s colonial power and trade during that century.

Lignum Vitae is the hardest and heaviest of commercial woods. Traditionally used in shipbuilding and making police truncheons and bowling balls, it was especially suited for making vessels to hold hot liquids because of its toughness.

Traditionally, Ligum Vitae also boasted medicinal properties, and European merchants imported it from the 16th century onwards as a remedy for a variety of ailments, from gout to syphilis. Although some surviving wassail bowls are ceramic or made from maple wood, the idea of drinking from a bowl or cup made from a material that promised good health for the year ahead would have been especially appealing during the centuries when life expectancy was lower than today, and health care for all but the wealthy was reliant on traditional remedies.


The wassailing bowl, toast within
Come, fill it up unto the brim
Come fill it up that we may all see
The wassailing bowl I’ll drink to thee.
Come, butler, come bring as a bowl of your best
And we hope your soul in heaven shall rest.
But if you do bring us a howl of your small
Then down shall go butler and bowl and all

The Wassail
The earliest versions of wassail consisted of warmed mead into which people dropped roasted crab apples which burst to create a drink called “lambs wool”' drunk on Lammas Day, still known in Shakespeare's time. Later, the drink evolved into a mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops, drunk from a large communal bowl. People often added apples or oranges to the mix. Some recipes also called for beaten eggs to be tempered into the drink.
A Recipe for Wassail

4 to 6 apples
3 liters of good cider
6 cinnamon sticks
dark rum, to taste
soft dark brown sugar, to taste
around 500ml of water
toast (optional)

Prepare the apples; cut around them a circle halfway down, this stops them bursting when cooking, place on a tray and bake in a moderate oven until they have begun to collapse, around 30 minutes. Whilst you wait for the oven to do its job, pour the cider into a large pan with the cinnamon stick, at least 3 generous tablespoons of sugar and 250ml of rum and half of the water. Bring to a simmer and add more sugar and rum, and dilute accordingly with more water. Lastly, for tradition’s sake, atop with slices of toast.

The Toast
The English word wassail` comes from the Middle English phrase "wes heil,” which means "be whole" or "be healthy." The contemporary English word "hale," meaning sound, health or vigorous. evolved from the second word in this phrase. Medieval Britons toasted each other with the cry, "Wes heil!" the proper open response was "Drine heil!" meaning "drink wholeness" or "drink health" The phrase first appears in a 12th-century document.

During the 12th century, when King Venn VI called for his wassail howl on Twelfth Night, he and his court observed the following ritual. The chapel choir came into the hall and stood to one side. Next, the steward entered the hall with the royal bowl and cried "Wassail" three times. Then the choir burst into song.

A 14th-century document reveals that in that era the toast “wes heil" accompanied the passing of a communal cup. Each person in the gathering received the cup along with a kiss, sipped from the vessel, toasted the next person, and passed the cup to them. A document dating from the 13th century mentions a special wassail bowl designed for communal dunking of bread and cakes. By the end of the 14th century, many wealthy English families possessed heirloom wassail bowls. Much ceremony often accompanied the use of these bowls.


Watch a Video: The Gloucester Wassail

The Caroling Custom
Historical evidence suggests that sometime in the 16th century common folk began carrying wassail bowls from house to house during the Christmas season. They gamished the bowl with decorations such as ribbons, holly, mistletoe or other greenery, and colored paper. Crying, "Wassail, wassail," they brought the decorated bowl full of spiced ale to their wealthy neighbors, hoping to exchange a cup of Christmas ale for a gift of food or a tip. Hence, the groups became known as “wassailers;” and the custom itself, "wassailing." In another variant of this custom, the wassailers carried an empty bowl to their neighbors, bidding the householders fill it up for them.

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