Look out, neighbours. It’s time to get your wassail on. The carol announces, “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” and so wassail we must. What exactly this entails is not clear. Either it involves a holiday greeting, a sort of Christmas trick-or-treating, or a holiday drink recipe. Or a bowl.
Being as how we love Christmas tradition, many of our holiday carols and stories date back centuries and thus have become little glimpses of Christmas past—including the alcoholic parts. Some of the tipples sound less than appetizing.
The story that gave us the Ghost of Christmas Past, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, preserves some of that mostly-forgotten drink menu. It’s known that the English drink their beer warm but once upon a time they took it even further. Dickens mentions a drink called purl, which was hot ale mixed with gin.
Also making A Christmas Carol appearance is a hot wine punch called “smoking bishop”, made from heated red wine flavoured with oranges, sugar, and spices. In those pre-central heating days a hot drink was apparently an even more pleasant prospect in the bleak midwinter. Another Dickensian drink was “shrub”, which was rum or brandy mixed with orange or lemon juice and sugar.
A more international favourite was posset. Hot milk was curdled with wine or ale and usually drunk from special spouted cups. It may not sound like Merry Christmas in a mug but in fact it is probably the ancestor of the modern rum and eggnog.
But what of wassail, of which so many carollers have sung? It was a greeting, a drink, an implement, and a tradition. “Waes Hael” was a wish for good health, and it often rang out when peasants went ’round to the homes of their lords seeking some holiday food and drink—wassailing, not begging, as the carol takes pains to point out. Wassail was also a drink, a kind of spiced ale that was a Christmas specialty. And to receive it, you had your wassail bowl.
So happy wassailing. But remember, do not attempt to drive home in your coach and four.