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Wassail & Winter Solstice

Yesterday, December 21st, marked the ancient observance of Winter Solstice and the more recent traditional fourth Sunday of Advent. If you’re curious about the source of customs related to winter and Christmas, look no further than December 21st.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Winter Solstice marks the longest night and shortest day. The day which marks the sun’s rebirth, and customs to bring light into darkness.

Bringing in the Yule Log. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

The Celts believed that the sun would stand still for twelve days. To ward off the darkness, they lit an enormous Yule Log, most often oak. While the log burned the Celts feasted. Each spark represented piglets or calves that would bring prosperity in the spring.

Celts also decorated evergreen trees by hanging candles on their boughs. The lights and ornaments represented the sun, moon, stars, and souls of those who died during the previous year.

Mistletoe by Mokkie. Creative Commons Attribution. Wikimedia Commons

Druid priests utilized two plants for ritual and medicinal purposes. Mistletoe was used as an anecdote to poison, a fertility talisman, and guarded wearers from witchcraft. Celts thought holly, with its ability to survive the winter, also provided protection.

Wassail by Jeremy Tarling. Creative Common Attribution. Wikimedia Commons

Wassail was a favorite Yuletide beverage. The word wassail comes from two Anglo-Saxon words: Waes Hael, a combination of a greeting and a toast. Now, it’s a holiday drink made popular by wassailing songs. To hear Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Wassail Song based on the Gloucesershire Wassail, follow the link.

But what is Wassail?

I offer two recipes. See if you can guess which one I’d make.

Option 1:
The wassail bubbling in the picture is a mixture of 7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, a cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, and lemon slices.

Option 2:
Jenny at the Nourished Kitchen offers a more fulsome recipe for traditional wassail. The addition of egg helps the liver cope with all the alcohol.

To start: Scoop out the cores of four small apples. Fill each apple with a tablespoon of unrefined cane sugar, and put them on a baking sheet. Stud an orange with 13 cloves and add it to the baking sheet. Bake the fruit at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile: Pour 2 quarts of hard apple cider and half a cup of brandy into a heavy bottomed stock pot. Warm the mixture and whisk in 1 tablesppon of powdered ginger and 1 teaspoon of grated nutmeg. Do not boil. (Oops – too late)

Make a spice bag: Put 6 allspice berries and 2 cinnamon sticks into a small square of buttered muslin. Float this in the wassail as it warms.

It’s time for the eggs: Separate 6 large eggs. Beat egg yolks. In a  separate bowl, whip egg whites. Fold yolks into whites. Pour half a cup of wassail into the egg mix. Take the spice muslin square out of the wassail pot. Pour in the egg mixture. Combine.

Finally: Pour entire mixture into a very large punchbowl. Float the apples and orange (remember them?) in the wassail.

Although Option 2 sounds amazing, I recognize I’m not a patient cook. Yep, I’ll go with Option 1.


Featured Image: English Holly, Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Zoe Mintz. Winter Solstice 2014. Dec. 19, 2014. Here.

The Ancients: Tree of Life. Here.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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