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Hearth to Hearth: Wassailing on New Years

Hearth to Hearth: Wassailing on New Years – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – December 2002

“Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering, so fair to be seen.
We are not beggars’ children that go from door to door,
But we are neighbors children that you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you a happy New Year,
And God send you a happy New Year!”
Our wassail cup is made of rosemary-tree,
So is your beer of the best barley.
-English North and Midlands traditional song

It simply wouldn’t be New Year’s without eggnog. This creamy libation seems to bear its share of tradition, and it does go back some time, but it appears to be a relative of the still-more ancient wassail. The wassail bowl has a history we rarely dream of when partaking of the usual New Year toasts. Let’s put these cousins together and trace their ancestry.

From its earliest times the term “wassail” referred to the drink itself, a hot spiced wine for drinking healths on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Twelfth Night celebrations. It was said to have originated with the fifth-century legend of the beautiful Saxon Rowena, who toasted the health of the English King Vortigern with the words “Wass-hael”(your health!). Her spiced wine libation was a form of the ancient Roman hypocras, and survived to hold a place in the early Middle Ages cuisine of the wealthiest Both the wine and the spice were imported and prodigiously expensive (England, after all, did not have the climate to produce wines). In later centuries the wine was replaced with fine local ales, making it more characteristically English and far more available to the great majority. As the British developed spice plantations in their tropical Asian and Indian colonies, the cost of spices was gradually reduced and consequently they were more available (at least for special occasions).

The recipes were flexible and variable and each family with means enough had its own. Sometimes it was a last-minute preparation, but on occasion it was prepared some three days in advance of its use and bottled. In such cases it was deemed ready for use when the pressure of the gasses formed by ongoing fermentation popped the cork, at which time only a few final touches were required to bring it to the serving bowl.

Wassail also turned up as Lamb’s Wool. In this variant ale or dark beer was heated, forming a “wooly froth” on the surface; and sporting small baked crab apples heated to bursting and spilling out their white frothy pulp. Sometimes slabs of toasted bread mysteriously spread with yeast were floated in the bowl (could this be the origin of the toast one drinks?). Many surviving recipes show the addition of wines and sugar, and some thickened the brew with eggs, often pouring the mixture back and forth between pan and bowl to reach the proper degree of foam. Some wassail bowls (as the drink was also called) were enriched with cream. In most cases the popular seasonings were nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, grated fresh ginger, and lemon.

Shakespeare’s references to wassail confirm some of these uses:

Sometimes lurk I in the gossip’s bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab [crab apple] And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And down her withered dewlap pours the ale.
and in Twelfth Night:
Next crown the bowl full
With gentle Lamb’s Wool
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of Ale. too,
And thus ye must doe
To make the Wassail a swinger.

In Medieval England, the word wassail was also used in a number of situations; the Oxford English Dictionary has filled almost a page with its varied applications. For one, it was a common greeting: apparently one simply called out “Wasseyle!” to convey friendly intentions to someone encountered casually: It was also the common salutation when presenting a cup of wine to an honored guest, or when drinking someone’s health. In this transaction the host said “wesse-hail” (later “whatsaile”) and the honoree responded “drink-hail.” Heile in any of its spellings meant “good health” (think “hale”), : sit-heile meant sit in health. In that spirit, the toast was also addressed to the farm’s plants and animals to encourage their fertility and production: “They go into the Ox-house to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to the ox.” The practice remained well into the eighteenth century, when English orchardists made their wassail concoctions of cider and walked out into the orchard to “wassail their apple trees.”

Robert Herrick, in Hesperides (1648) described it thus:

Wassaile the trees, that they might beare
Many a plum and many a peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing.

With flexible usages and meanings, fascinating changes in spelling and conations, wassail remained in the English language for centuries—by the seventeenth century waes heal (“be thou hale”) continued to be an informal greeting, somewhat akin to the modern “good day.” And literary references in the nineteenth century abounded.

Wassail was always served from a special bowl—not to be confused with a punch bowl—called the Loving Cup by early monks. It was fashioned from sturdy materials, most commonly wood and more rarely pewter. The special wooden bowl, sometimes rimmed with metal and dressed with festive ribbons, was not only the serving bowl but also the drinking bowl, as it was passed from hand to hand drunk from directly.

Wassail! Wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our bowl is made of maplin [maple] tree:
We be good fellows all—I drink to thee.
-traditional Gloucestershire song

In the time of Dickens the wooden bowl was still well used. Dickens’ writings abound with such references, although he was said to have preferred a brown earthenware pitcher that wouldn’t splash over. And from these more recent centuries we hear of marvelously-worked silver bowls, not necessarily accompanied by matched cups or, indeed, any cups at all, as drinking wassail was still a communal practice.

And then there were special wassailing songs—these carols were also called wassails and resembled the carols sung at Christmas. Offered by groups of children (sometimes of the poor) out wassailing through their community, they were often composed by the singers and conveyed musical wishes for good-health. Of course one of their important purposes was the solicitation of special holiday drink, food or money. The wassailers customarily carried bowls of the hot drink and offered sips to prospective donors. A late 17th-century author noted that: “:.. wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide … present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.” The practice of begging from door to door remained well into the twentieth century, even in America. On New Years Day, into the 1930s and ‘40s, New York City children dressed in ragged clothing and dirtied their faces, rang doorbells and asked for pennies. The drink, now considered inappropriate for children and no longer part of the ritual, had become the exclusive domain of adults.

The following recipes have been taken from early sources.

Cosman adapted the following from a recipe in a medieval manuscript, and I have been unable to resist adding a few details of my own, particularly those that deal with the treatment of the apples described in other sources. She notes that the apple cider listed below can be replaced with hard apple cider, dry white wine, light ale or stout beer. It is a good tested recipe you may wish to use instead of the original, which, like so many of earlier times, were written with indefinite recipe amounts and procedures. Feel free to adjust the flavorings to your taste.


adapted from Madeleine Cosman, Medieval Holidays and Festivals

1 gallon apple cider
12 small apples (crab apples or lady apples)
1/2 cup sugar, if cider is tart
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/4 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger or two teaspoons fresh grated ginger
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Pierce the apples and bake them in a hot oven until they split. In a large enameled pot, slowly heat 3/4 of the cider, until warm but not boiling. In another enameled pot, pour remaining cider and add the apple, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger and bring to a boil. Combine the two liquids and pour into a heat proof bowl. Whip the cream and brown sugar until it peaks. Spoon the cream onto the wassail, or add the cream to each tankard as it is served.

What of the beverage we now associate with New Years Day? Egg-nog itself had a substantial English history, dating from pre-Elizabethan times. In its earlier forms, it seems to have been a cold cooked-custard base braced with brandy, almonds, candied lemon peel, nutmeg, and with flavored whipped cream piled on top. A simpler version (egg yolk, aqua vitae, and fresh milk, to be taken at fasting at bedtime) is found in Elinor Fettiplace’s recipes (1604) and recommended for A Great Cold. And English egg-nog, made with brandy and madeira, was sometimes used as a cure for hangover. a far cry from wassail. It seems strangely unexpected to find it so medicinal. Like wassail, it turns up in a few cookbooks of the nineteenth century, but seems to be shunned by such prominent English authors as Mrs. Beeton.

What, then, happened to wassail and eggnog in colonial and early America? It would seem that they survived in both hot and cold forms, but with different names. Wassail itself appears to have remained in England and is not mentioned in the New World recipe collections. English eggnog, however, crossed the Atlantic as a tea-table delicacy, not especially tied to New Years Day. A brief survey of the American cookbooks in my own collection suggests that it had developed some favor by the mid-nineteenth century as a few recipes appeared in print by then.

The earliest recipe called Egg Nogg I found was offered in Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife (1847), and from then on the drinks’ distinctions and definitions became increasingly daunting. Eliza Leslie’s recipe of the same name (Directions for Cooking, 1851) offered a version similar to cold posset but made without wine or ale, and using instead a mixture of eggs, cream, sugar, and rum or brandy, and nutmeg. This cold version is also reminiscent of earlier English ‘syllabub” and closely-related possets. Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796) had listed several syllabubs she called Creams, one of which, Lemon Cream, was a hot rich dessert dish sometimes sipped and sometimes eaten with a spoon. Syllabub required milk or cream, sugar, cider or wine, brandy, occasionally lemon, and nutmeg.

Recipe: EGG NOGG

Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847.

Six eggs, a quart of milk, half a pint of brandy, six table-spoons of sugar; beat the yolks and sugar together, and the whites very hard; mix in the brandy; boil the milk and pour it into the mixture.

The Practical Housewife (1860) included recipes which are largely indistinguishable from wassail and presented under the names Ale Posset or Sack Posset, Royal Posset, and Hot Purl. (Possets were generally based on ale or wine and enriched with spice, cream, stronger spirits, or sugar, and appeared in either cold or hot versions.)

These three drinks—eggnog, syllabub, and posset—each quite variable, were so similar that they seem to have been almost interchangeable. In any case, a British diarist traveling in America in 1870 reported that eggnog, “the peculiar beverage of New Years day,” was widely drunk, as was Tom and Jerry (a milk version) and other related mixed toddies.


Eliza Leslie: Directions for Cookery, 1851

Mix half a pound of white sugar with a pint of fine sweet cider, or of white wine; and grate in a nutmeg. Prepare them in a large bowl, just before milking time. Then let it be taken to the cow, and have about three pints milked into it; stirring it occasionally with a spoon. Let it be eaten before the froth subsides. If you use cider, a little brandy will improve it.

Thus the colder versions seem to have taken the role of hot wassail in the American holiday observance, and survived as eggnog. Why eggnog and not wassail? Perhaps the hot drink was too complex, or perhaps it was too British to survive the American War of Independence. Perhaps it was losing favor among the elite abroad. Perhaps the temperance movement had something to do with it, and with it the demise of the general custom of serving libations to New Years Day callers. It would seem that the riotous part of the holiday was to find its logical place on New Years Eve, where it survived Prohibition to become the late-night festivity we now know.

Today most people have experienced eggnog only from supermarket cartons, unfortunately seasoned and preserved artificially and lacking the virtues of fresh cream and eggs. What a bad name is given to a fine drink that is in reality not very hard to prepare. If you are inclined to try your hand at a real holiday drink this year, you may find more pleasure in one of the following.

If your New Year’s celebration takes a traditional tone, whether on the Eve or the Day, you might like to try one of these old recipes. In the interest of health and with the principles of the Germ Theory of Disease in mind, you may prefer not to pass around a bowl of steaming wassail without cups. But carrying in a handsome bowl of either hot foaming brew, possibly with tiny baked apples bobbing about, or a chilled and whipped rum eggnog graced with a dusting of freshly grated fragrant nutmeg, and setting them out on your serving table is sure to make a splash.

Recipe: EGG NOGG

Eliza Leslie: Directions for Cookery, 1851
Beat separately the yolks and whites of six eggs. Stir the yolks into a quart of rich milk, or thin cream, and add half a pound of sugar. Then mix in half a pint of rum or brandy. Flavor it with a grated nutmeg. Lastly, stir in gently the beaten whites of three eggs. It should be mixed in a china bowl.


Lyman P. Powell, ed., Practical Housewife, 1860

Boil a pint of new milk with a slice of toasted bread, sweeten a bottle of milk ale, and pour it into a basin with nutmeg or other spice, add the boiling milk to it, and when the head rises, serve.


Lyman P. Powell. ed., Practical Housewife, 1860

Put a quart of new milk into a saucepan, and place it over a slow clear fire. When it boils, crumble four Damascus biscuits into it; give it one boil, remove from the fire, add grated nutmeg and sugar to taste, stir in half a pint of sack (canary wine) [sherry], and serve. French roll (made with a rich white flour bread dough) will answer instead of the biscuits

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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