Yes, the sun has begun her official return. But as I write this, frost shimmers, the ground is frozen and every footstep crunches. And it’s easy to understand why our ancestors, as the pantry grew lean, wanted to give mother nature just a little loving nudge in waking up. So to me, in the barren starkness of winter, the old traditions of wassailing, of pouring libations upon the earth, just makes perfect sense. So in honour of this old seasonal magic, I decided to infuse a sparkly apple cider with the warming energy of sunshiney herbs and flowers!
The word wassail is derived from both Old English (wases hael) and Old Norse (vest heil), and literally means “be healthy” “be you hale”, and it refers both to a mulled cider poured on the roots of apple trees to bless and nourish the orchards, and an actual toast drunk to ensure good health and good harvest.
Customs differed regionally, but wassailing generally occurred on the Twelfth Night of Yule (January 17th). Celebrants would gather round the trees to make a racket to raise the Sleeping Tree Spirits (and scare away any evil spirits which might bedevil the future harvest). They also placed toast (sops) soaked in cider in the branches for the Robins, who were the guardians of the spirit of the apple trees. Then a Wassail bowl or cup was presented, and all drunk from it with the toast Wassail (be healthy)!
I love these ‘old ways’ of creating blessings for ourselves and the planet. Sourced in the understanding of our symbiotic relationship with mother nature, they symbolically express our gratitude for the fruits of the earth and our role in the physical and spiritual care of the land.
While no is quite sure when wassailing began, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud , authors of A Dictionary of English Folklore believe it is sourced in the older “field-visiting custom” or “field remedy ritual” believed to fertilize the earth and ensure abundance. They write “Amongst all the calendar customs which popular folklore enthusiasts have claimed as remnants of luck-bringing rituals, wassailing is the only one that has a relatively clean and undisputed claim to this lineage.”
The author Henry David Thoreau believed wassailing was a relic of the “heathen sacrifice” to Pomona, Roman Goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards. I think he’s probably right. The blessings of trees through the pouring of libations (oils, milk, mead and liquid honey) far predate Christianity. The apple tree is one of our oldest spiritual symbols, and from the Romans, Greeks, Celts, Balts, Norse, Teutons, and Slavs, it was understood to be an embodiment of the goddess.
Apples were also the sacred fruit of Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love, beauty and fertility. And from Ishtar, Astarte, Hera, Indunn, and Freya, the apple was the Fruit of immortality, Fruit of the Gods, Fruit of the Underworld, the Silver Branch, The Silver Bough, The Tree of Love.
In fact the apple has so long been associated with the goddess and magic, it’s a wonder it took the Church so long to crack down. But finally it did, and according to the Cambridge Library Collection blog, ” In 1577 there was an edict against wassailing – superstitious practices believed to encourage good apple crop in the following year were banned: though in spite of this and later Puritan objections the custom was maintained in the traditional apple-growing areas.”
Today the tradition of wassailing is having a popular resurgence with celebrations popping up everywhere in private, community and commercial orchards. And in the past two years I attended local wassails that I’m sure rivalled any of their past counterparts in merriment.
But this year I decided to wassail the bounteous crab apple tree I’d harvested from late summer to fall. Standing not in an orchard, but in a mixed field of trees on an abandoned lot, I wanted to send her a little extra love and say thanks for all the sweet, tart goodness she brought to my life.
The traditional English wassail recipes call for cloves, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and peppercorns tied in cheesecloth. This spice bag (along with the cider, apples, brown sugar, brandy) were put in a large pot over gentle heat. Eggs were beaten and added to make a frothy creation. (see sample recipe here).
But I wanted something less heavy, more effervescent (and less effort!) and so I decided to go with a sparkly cider made with Salt Spring wild apples. (Please note, whatever sparkly cider you use, and there are oodles of local craft ciders to choose from, you’ll need a re-sealable bottle with swing cap for this recipe.)
Then, in the spirit of sympathetic magic that is wassail, I decided empower the cider with the aromatic enlivening herbs of the sun, rosemary and bay. To this I added yarrow and just a touch of motherwort, for their nurturing feminine influence. And finally, in honour of the goddesses of love, fertility and beauty, I added a liberal dose of the petals of their most sacred flower, the rose.
Of course you can use whatever herbs and spices you feel so inclined to. Magic is a personal business. But fennel seeds and lemon balm also make wonderful aromatic additions, and plants with yellow flowers (calendula, St. John’s Wort, dandelion) that turn towards the sun can be used. And you don’t need much, it’s the intention that’s important here, plus too much plant material will just clog up the bottle!
The wassail of old was decidedly alcoholic, but if you want to go spirit free, an apple cider juice will still do the trick. There are plenty of recipes online, and most feature orange or cranberry juice as well. Here’s one for herbal tea and juice wassail.
Of course this recipe is far simpler, as it’s done right in the bottle. That said, you’ll find keeping the bubbles in when you poke down your herbs and petals, is a bit of a challenge! Because, as I discovered, it fizzes like crazy!
So to make this infused cider, you’re going to need to be fast. Get a chopstick or skewer ready before uncapping the bottle, then push the herbs and petals down through the bottleneck as quickly as you can without losing the fizz! Quickly recap, and let sit for a day or two. And don’t forget to pay it some energizing attention (and intention) now and then.
On January 17th, as dusk closes, take your bottle to a place in nature that could use some nourishing libations. Decant and strain your wassail, then lift a toast to the health of all. Here’s a popular one from days past: “Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wassailing, So fair to be seen. Love and joy come to you, And to your wassail too.” And don’t forget a splash or two for the earth!
Sparkly Wassail Recipe
- 1 750 ml. bottle of sparkling apple cider (one with a resealable swing cap)
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 1 small bay leaf
- pinch of dried yarrow and mugwort
- few crushed cardamom seeds
- 1 handful of dried wild or garden rose petals
- (and if you want to add a touch of sweetness – a dollop of honey)
- Gather your plant material close at hand.
- Uncap your bottle, and moving quickly, push down a few herbs or petals at a time using a skewer, chopstick or thin knife. It will fizz but keep going as fast as you can to get your plant material in. Pour in your honey (if you are using).
- Then quickly recap. Turn the bottle and gently shake a few times to make sure your herb material is well soaked.
- Let sit to infuse for a minimum of 12 hours, periodically re-shaking the bottle.
- When ready to wassail, decant, strain and pour into glasses or mugs. Garnish with dried rose petals, rosemary and orange slices.