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Wassailing: Your New Favorite Holiday Tradition

December 20, 2017

By Chris Woodard, December 20, 2017

Looking for a new tradition this holiday season? Maybe give drinking a shot. You’re already doing that? Damn. Ok, how about caroling? Right, of course you’ve already tried that. How about a combination of both?!

Wassailing is an English holiday tradition comprised of all of the jolliest things. Festive drunken carolling centered around a spiced alcoholic beverage. Beer, cider, or a combination of both are acceptable. Hell, maybe even throw some eggs in there.

Depending on your source, wassailing could mean a caravan of drinking and singing in merriment throughout the town, or performing somewhat of a blessing for the trees of an apple orchard. Regardless of the type of drink, whether you’re serenading a neighbor or a tree (we’ve all been there), the spirit of wassailing is about having a drink amongst good company and spreading positive energy.

As much as I enjoy cider and trees, my preferred method of the celebration is the one that features groups traveling about town drinking, caroling, and offering up a drink of the roux to those who wish to join in celebration.

The term wassailing is derived from a much debated translation of an Old English phrase, waes hael, that ultimately equates to a wish of good health. Simple enough. 

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “How do I get involved in the fun?” If you plan go wassailing the right way this holiday season, first you’ve got to get your hands on a concoction.

Full Sail Brewing CompanyThe easy way to wassail with a concoction.

If you’re looking to take the easy way out, you might try to get your hands on Wassail Winter Ale by Full Sail Brewing Company. Full Sail has been producing their modern adaptation of a wassail for thirty years and they’ve been mighty successful doing it. In a dynastic run, Full Sail Wassail Winter Ale (say that five times fast) brought home thirteen consecutive gold medals in the World Beer Championships.

Feeling a bit more daring? Make it yourself!

While contents will vary from one recipe to the next, many traditional wassail recipes would feature a medley of ale or cider, apples, cream, eggs, honey and various other fruits. Also included are any number of spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. If you’re planning to assemble a wassail punch style, though, what beer should serve as your base?

To maintain some level of authenticity, start with an English ale. A Samuel Smith Nut Brown would start your wassail off on the right foot. Its prominent walnut and raisin flavors should work well in conjunction with the ingredients you’ll add later on.

If you prefer a little more punch in your punch, try using a Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale. While this one is actually brewed in New England, Hampshire Special Ale is an English strong ale touting 7% alcohol by volume; a slightly more warming option for those cold winter evenings of carolling.

Less adventurous assemblers of wassail might opt to forgo the eggs or warm temperature of the traditional drink. If you’re not up to the task of creating your own and you can’t get your hands on a bottle of something that actually says wassail, you’ll find that many of the flavors we associate with the winter warmers we’re so familiar with lend credence to the historical drink.

Some wassailing carols also featured strongarm requests and threats.”

The tradition of wassailing, for our purposes, has existed for many hundreds of years in England, even predating the widespread influence of Christianity. The tradition doesn’t historically happen on Christmas or even Christmas Eve, but Christmas caroling is very much the modern manifestation of wassailing. Strangely enough, wassailing has traditionally been an event that occurs following the new year.

Thanks to some small changes in the way we’ve chosen to observe our calendars over the last few hundred years, there’s some ambiguity when it comes to the appropriate date of celebration. Depending on how strictly one follows tradition, wassailing occurs on either January 5th or 17th. Not to worry though. Even in the heyday of wassailing, patrons enjoyed the festive beverage throughout the holiday season.

Much like the modern equivalents we’re acquainted with, wassailing songs commonly featured wishes of love and good fortune to the members of the community. Similar in nature to the darker aspects of trick-or-treating though, some wassailing carols also featured strongarm requests and threats – typically for food. One might imagine how the actions of a drunken mob could take a turn for the worst. Some things never change.

Despite the bad eggs (pun intended), the practice of wassailing speaks to true human nature and exemplifies the giving, loving spirit we all should embrace regardless of which holidays we choose to celebrate this winter.

After all, what’s not to be gracious for? Good beer, good friends, happy holidays, and waes hael.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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