Here we Go A-Wassailing

Imagine this scene: a crowd of Englishmen, dressed for a frigid winter night, roaming the streets with beer mugs in hand, singing, “Here we come a wassailing upon the leaves so green…”

Wait. What’s wassailing, and why would you want to go do it? We wondered that too.

According to the Whimple History Society, a group based in Devon, England, wassailing began as a way to coax the spirits into proliferating the next year’s apple crop. Groups of people would go out into the orchards with their mugs of wassail and sing carols to the trees. They also gave the trees a good stiff drink by placing wassail-soaked pieces of toast in the branches. By the way, wassail is both a spiced alcoholic punch and an old English phrase meaning “good health.”

Wassailing (and drinking wassail) are both old English traditions, but Americans have adopted them in various capacities. We recreated

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Network star Alton Brown’s version of the drink. (With mixed results, sadly.) Oregon-based Full Sail Brewery makes a malty beer inspired by wassail. (If you find a place to get it in Kentucky, please let me know where.) Several holiday festivals around the country have unique ways of capturing the wassailing spirit.

In Woodstock, Vermont, they do an old-fashioned Wassail Weekend. If you want to see authentic 19th century holiday celebrations, this picturesque New England town is the place to go. Horse and sleigh riders parade through town in period costumes. Historic homes that are decorated for Christmas open their doors for tours. People gather to hear traditional holiday music and eat old English holiday foods. Oh, and there’s plenty of wassail to go around.

Last Thursday in New Braunfels, Texas, stores kept their doors open late for the 18th annual Wassailfest. Participating stores (also known as wassail stops) served proprietary versions of wassail for festival-goers to sample while they shop. After they finished sampling, the crowd voted on their favorite wassail recipe. The business with the top versions won the titles of “Peoples’ Choice,” and “Wassail-Meister.” The competing wassails were required to be non-alcoholic, lest anyone ingest too much holiday spirit.

Our favorite take on the wassailing tradition is the Santa crawl, which is also known as Santarchy and Santacon. It’s like a pub crawl, but with Santa costumes. Among the largest Santa crawls is the Reno Santa Crawl in Reno, Nevada. According to founder Matt Goedert, thousands of Santa suit-clad partiers turned out last year to drink beer, sing dirty Christmas carols, and raise holiday hell. What does a Santa crawl have to do with wassailing? A lot, actually. Groups of friends gathering and drinking from the wassail bowl (or in modern times, the beer keg), people dressed for the cold night and singing in the streets. (Maybe a few drunken revelers in Reno have tried to sing to trees too?)

Santa crawls and other wassailing celebrations take place in cities all over the country, but they’re conspicuously absent from Louisville. So what’s a wannabe wassailer to do? We suggest making a batch of homemade wassail and inviting the neighbors over. Maybe it will catch on and you’ll start a tradition. This video will show you how to do it:

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