Take down all your Christmas ornaments by Twelfth Night to avoid bad luck for the rest of the year. — The Magpie and the Wardrobe by Sam McKechnie & Alexandrine Portelli
It is Twelfth Night, the last night of Christmas and the night before Epiphany, the festival of the Wise Men. This is the night when all the drummers show up along with a veritable cacophony of birds; a party of lords, ladies and colorful others; and quite a few cows. I’m not sure I would be favorably impressed if an admirer sent me the list of things from the carol. There might be restraining orders by New Year’s Day. Victorians had odd predilections. Still… thirty lords a leaping would be awkward no matter your tastes. Never mind all those swans and whatever they were swimming in.
Now twelve pear trees, with or without partridges, that might draw my favor.
I’m thinking about pear trees and other orchard-y things today because this is the traditional day to go out and wassail your prize trees. We tend to think that the wassail bowl was made for humans — because isn’t everything about us? But the fact that it is in fact a bowl, not a cup or mug, and usually one of gigantic proportions, should be a clue that maybe we’re not meant to be drinking from it. We can wish each other “good health” (wassail means “wæs hail“, “be in good health” or “be fortunate”) and raise a glass of cider (hard or not), but we’re not likely to want to share a communal vat.
The bowl is more of a libation vessel. People dipped their mugs into the bowl, but a good deal of it was poured out on the roots of the oldest or most productive fruit tree in the lord’s orchard. (And it almost always was a lord’s orchard. There weren’t many productive communal fruit plantations.) Usually there was a caroling parade to the manor house with many stops along the way. It was not uncommon to have to refill the bowl many times on the way to its final destination, so each house had their own wassail warming on the hearth. What might have started out as a bowl of lamb’s wool might have transformed into mulled wine before the end of the night, with many mixtures of family favorite recipes along the way. I imagine the parade was rather high spirited by the time they rang the manor bell. Perhaps the lords tired of all this commotion because the custom seems to have died out in the 18th century — or it could be that Enclosure meant that folks just weren’t inclined to toast an orchard they neither owned nor worked. In any case, by the early 19th century where there was still wassailing, it had turned into a farmhand drinking party with a great deal of noise and manly stomping about. The “libation” was guns fired into the branches more often than not.
I’ve never poured wassail on my fruit trees. I’ve a feeling that would draw ants even in the dead of winter. But I do take a glass of warmed cider or mulled wine out to my trees and drink a toast on 12th Night. I don’t know if the tree cares much, but it’s a lovely way to say a quiet thank you for the harvest and to wish for good fortune in the coming year. Plus, there is always something interesting happening in the night skies in early January. Stars, snow, moon. Sometimes I forget why I went out there.
The Victorians discovered wassailing and deemed it compellingly quaint. However, they don’t seem to have had clear ideas on what it was. Like many traditions from former times, they reoriented the entire thing into a children’s party. The wassail became submerged into a night of games and presents and perhaps literal tons of sugar. There may have been small amounts of alcohol in that bowl, but it wasn’t the grog of yesteryear. There was also no longer a parade to the orchard. The parties were contained in the parlor. There may have been mummers to entertain, but there was no caroling door to door through the whole town. By these times, “town” was no longer a place where everyone knew everyone. For that matter, town was no longer a place with orchards.
So Twelfth Night has come down to us with all sorts of blended and confused traditions. The good thing about that is you can pick your favorite bits out of the stew pot and just leave what you don’t like. I’ve put out knitted socks for La Befana (whose name is derived from the Late Latin name of Epiphany, Epiphania) and spent a quiet evening reading to my kids. I’ve gone to theatre and musical performances. I’ve hosted and attended various Twelfth Night parties, from all adult (nominally) to all munchkins. But even when that hoopla is going on I try to slip out into the night.
These days I lean toward chamomile tea, but the intent is still a warm salud to tree and stars and snow. Tonight, I might take a pass on pouring any libation though. It’s in the low 30s (°F) and raining. Something about rain at that temperature feels much colder than the snow you get when it chills only a couple degrees more. Also, my yard is saturated, what with melt and rain and very cool days that don’t allow evaporation. It’s not a good idea to slog through the muddy grass even in proper footwear. The soil compacts and plants are squished. So I’ll wish my apple trees a jolly wassail from the porch.
Lamb’s Wool for Wassailing
Here is my old recipe for Lamb’s Wool. I haven’t made it in years, though I discovered an un-warmed version in a New Hampshire pub. They called it a Snake Bite and dispensed with the “wooly” bits, but it was still a bit too delicious for my own good. In any case, here’s the recipe I remember.
1 quart true ale (hoppy beer) 1 pint hard cider 4 large apples 1 tsp vanilla extract 1/2 tsp orange flower water (or 1/4 cup fresh orange juice) a tea strainer or coffee-filter sachet filled with: 2 tsp cinnamon 1 tsp allspice 1/2 tsp ginger 1/4 tsp cloves
Wash and core the apples, but don’t peel them.
Bake the apples in a 325°F oven for about 45 minutes until the fruit is very soft.
Let cool a bit then press the apples through a strainer or food mill, separating skin from pulp. Discard the skins.
Warm the ale and cider with the spices, orange and vanilla. Don’t boil the liquid as this burns off the alcohol and makes the mixture too bitter.
Fluff up the apple pulp to make it frothy (“wooly”) and add to the warmed liquid.
You may want to add sugar. I like mine a bit bitter.
You might also add a few apples of some small, tart variety — crabapples or cider apples are good. Remove the cores but leave the skin on. Float the fruit in the frothy pulp. This is mostly for visual effect, but the tart fruit will add to the flavor. I’ve also seen cored apple slices and sliced oranges still in their peels floated in the warm liquid. I tend to think that this is more work than necessary, but if you go in for presentation it makes a delectable wassail bowl.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023