Monday, 17 December 2012

Candles and a Wassail Bowl for the Winter Solstice

Some Mistletoe, a Candle and a Wassail Bowl for the Winter Solstice
As the winter solstice approaches, I'm celebrating this time of year in the house by lighting some candles and preparing some mulled cider.  I've often made mulled cider in the past, but this year, with my recent visit to the Saxon chapel still on my mind, I've decided to create a wassail recipe.  I've an image of this warm, spicy drink being passed around in a mead hall under flaring torches - but I admit this is a romantic view; an impression I've gained from poetry such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and also from Tolkien's Golden Hall in The Lord of the Rings.  The truth is, the wassail bowl has a different history than that.

The Origins of Wassailing

In Beowulf, the warriors gather in the "beorsele", which has been translated as a beer hall or feast hall.  In the translation of the poem I possess it's called a "wassailing place" - so this is obviously where I got the image from!  "Wassail" apparently originates from words in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, but it wasn't seemingly used in literature until the Middle Ages. Today, we understand "wassail" as a traditional greeting meaning "Good Health!" and which is followed by the reply; "drinkhail".

The Wassailing Tradition

Most of the wassailing tradition hasn't taken place in a hall at all; it has taken place out in orchards where people have gathered to wish for a good apple harvest for the following year.  The wassailers gather around the most important apple tree in the orchard (known as the guardian of the orchard) and pour cider or ale on its roots.  They then drink a toast to the tree and drive away any evil spirits by making as much noise as possible with horns and bells. Bonfires have also been lit in the orchard; firelight and candlelight, at this darkest time of year, has always been seen as a way to banish evil.

In other traditions, wassailing parties of agricultural labourers used to go to the houses of the rich to sing traditional wassail songs for money; or in some areas women would dress up and visit different houses with a decorated wassail bowl to offer good wishes to the householders.

The Time of Year

The time of year this all takes place varies; but it's usually in midwinter, around Christmas and on Twelfth Night.

Wassail Recipe

There are different recipes for a wassail bowl; some are based on cider, and others on ale. But all recipes generally include roasted apples (in some areas called Lamb's Wool) and/or pieces of bread.

For my recipe, I've used cider, brandy, spices and apples, but I've left out the bread, because even if this is booze-infused, I don't fancy soggy bread in my drink.

I've used:

1 1/2 litres cider
2 cinnamon sticks
2 pinches of nutmeg
2 pinches ground cloves
2 tablespoons of caster sugar
A dash of brandy
6 roasted apples.


Remove the core from the apples and then roast the apples for about 40 minutes at 350 F/180 C/Gas 4 or until the apples have begun to soften and the skins are beginning to split.

Pour the cider into a large pan on a low heat.  After a few minutes, when the cider is warm, add the spices and brandy, let it boil and then turn the heat down and let it simmer.

When the apples are roasted, add to the cider and serve warm. 


  1. I love mulled cider at this time of year. And it's been such a poor apple year, perhaps a wassail ceremony (for next year) is a good idea!


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