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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Kenyon chapter.

Growing up, my family didn’t have many holiday traditions.  That’s not to say that our holidays together weren’t great, just that I couldn’t tell you about how we always baked a gingerbread house, or cut down our own Christmas tree, or even watched a favorite holiday-themed television episode.  We did all of these sorts of things, but there was never one tradition that really stuck out as unique to our family. So looking back, when I think of traditions, I think of the ones we took part in at church.

One tradition that has recently come to mind as the leaves are changing to the beautiful shades I have come to associate with Gambier, and the wind is getting a little bit brisker on that walk up from the KAC, is how every year at both Halloween and Christmas parties at church we would have wassail.  It would warm you up from the cold by putting a little warmth in your belly and force you to make conversation with those sitting around you as you waited for it to cool. The air in the kitchen would smell like spiced apples, and the breeze from outside would bring in the smell of leaves and the laughter of the children outside running to and fro.  Wassail was my favorite.

Since coming to Kenyon, I have been asked a lot (as I too often “casually” work in my love of this seasonal beverage into conversations with friends) what this “wassail” thing actually is?  At first, I would just explain that it was hot, spiced apple cider with things like cloves, cinnamon, and orange slices brewed in, but then I read up a little about what wassail really is. It goes back much further than I thought, and part of its beauty lies in the fact that it has no concrete recipe or makeup.  It simply is what it is on any given day, and historically the composition has depended on the means of those making it. But that’s getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning.

The first I heard the term “wassail” was actually not in reference to the beverage.  Instead, it was as it is used in the Christmas carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing”. The famous line goes: “Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wandering, so fair to be seen; Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a happy New Year.“ As is obvious by the context of the song, the term “a-wassailing” in this sense does not refer to the hot cider-like beverage that I described earlier.  Instead, it refers to the act of “wassailing”.

The term “wassail” in English has evolved from its Old Norse saying “ves heil” and the Old English “hal”, which means for one to be in good health or to be fortunate.  The saying was originally used as a simple greeting one would use to hail another on the street at the New Year, but independently evolved into what we now call a “toast” by the Old English.  They would use the saying to toast each other at the New Year through drink. From here the term became synonymous with the drink itself, and so the drink was officially called “wassail” as it is now. (One interesting note is that this same drink, often served at New Year’s parties by the English, is what coined the term “toast” for the greeting or blessing that one would give in salutations and drinking to honor a person. It was called such because this punch or wassail was often served with bits of toast floating in it or even dipped in it, which is a practice you can even use today if you were to make it yourself.)

Though this wassail is referred to widely throughout English literature, it is important to note that the beverage varied widely in its ingredients throughout the years and in different parts of the region.  Wassail resembled the ancient beverage hypocras, in that it was often a libation only for the wealthy because the spices used in its making were considered a luxury. Nutmeg, cloves, allspice, ginger, and cinnamon (plus the wine or whiskey that was often mixed in) came at a high price due to their need to be imported.  The drink adapted to these circumstances, however, and independent makers began to get creative in what they would and wouldn’t include in the punch. Some would leave ingredients out and add others. This is why the recipe today is so flexible. While we probably are not restricted in our ingredients due to price, we are still flexible due to the spirit of the drink.  In wassail, nearly everything goes that you might logically want to throw in, from cranberry, orange, or pineapple juice to maple syrup or brown sugar.

The term continued to evolve even after coming to define the drink itself, as is proven by the carol.  As the drink gained in popularity and affordability, its consumption became more widespread and associated with the holiday season of Christmas.  The most popular way it was drank was during caroling. In those days, carolers had two major ways of caroling. Some groups would be welcomed into others homes, bringing wassail with them for the free consumption of all in the merriment of the evening;  others would set up in a town square or on a street corner and sell the warm drink to passersby for a profit. Either way, the drink was then on associated with the act of Christmas caroling, hence the usage of “a-wassailing” to describe the act of caroling in the song “Here We Come A-wassailing”.

Though the beverage itself has lost its popularity in the last century, eggnog has seemingly taken its place as most people’s Christmas beverage of choice.  It serves a similar purpose. It is served at many Christmas caroling events where wassail would likely have been previously served.

With all this said, I would be remiss if I did not offer you a wassail recipe for your own enjoyment.  As I noted earlier, though, there is no one single recipe or list of ingredients one must use. Part of the fun is in being creative and a bit adventurous in your ingredients and methods so that every time it might be a little different.  Here is one I recently used that I feel is rather authentic:


  • 4 small apples
  • ¼ cup unrefined cane sugar
  • 1 orange (I like mine to be large so that there is plenty left to garnish the glasses or soak in the drink for taste and looks)
  • 13 whole cloves (You could also use powdered if you like.  I would recommend just a dash and then flavoring to taste as the drink simmers.)
  • 2 quarts of hard apple cider (It doesn’t actually have to be hard. I personally like it better with simple, non-alcoholic apple cider, but that is a matter of taste.)
  • 1 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp powdered ginger
  • 6 allspice berries
  • 4 cinnamon sticks (more if you want any for garnish)
  • Toast (optional, as mentioned before)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350℉
  2. Scoop out the core of all four of the apples without penetrating fully through the apple. (A melon-baller works well for this.)
  3. Fill each apple with a tablespoon of sugar (I actually prefer brown sugar, but this is up to you.)
  4. Place the apples on a baking sheet.
  5. If you are choosing to use the whole cloves, stud them into the orange and place the orange on the baking sheet with the apples.
  6. Place the baking sheet with the orange and apple into the oven and bake for forty minutes.
  7. Pour all liquids you are using into a large pot. (Again, you can be creative on this one.  Use alcohol if you want, or if you’re making it for the Thanksgiving season maybe even use some cranberry juice.) Stir in the powdered nutmeg and grated nutmeg and mix thoroughly.  Bring the pot to a simmer (NOT A BOIL).
  8. Place the allspice berries and cinnamon sticks in a sheet of muslin tied with cooking twine.  (Alternatively, you can throw them straight into the pot and collect them later. This just makes them easier to scoop out!)
  9. Warm the wassail for as long as you like.  (I know, this step seems way too unspecific, but it’s true.  I would recommend at least half an hour, but if you want to keep it warm for serving later or soaking in those extra spices, a few hours is no problem.)
  10. When you have heated it to your liking, without boiling it, transfer it to a serving bowl.  (Unless you would rather serve it directly from the pot, which is a valid choice. You can even serve it into the glasses and make the garnishing look beautiful yourself.)
  11. Float the baked apples and orange in the wassail serving bowl, and serve!

A few more suggestions:

  1. Add a little orange slice, cinnamon stick, or whipped cream with drizzle for garnish.  Get those Instagram worthy pictures, my friends!
  2. If you want to save some for later, keep it in the refrigerator for no more than four or five days.
  3. Get creative!  Different fruit juices are a great way to do this, but you could also do other things like adding a sliced orange straight to the pot or floating some boiled cranberries in the drink for garnish.

This was probably more than you ever wanted to know about wassail, but it may serve you well some day.  Throw a party for your friends and serve it! Or make it on a snowy day at home over a break. No matter how you do it, it’s sure to be delicious, I promise.

If nothing else, I hope you find the etymology of the word “wassail” to be half as interesting as I do.

Image Credit: 1,2,3