Wassail dates back to pre-Christian fertility rites when villagers would parade through their orchards in mid-winter shouting loudly and pouring cider on their plants in an attempt to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good crop in the coming season. Though this custom, known as wassailing, is still practiced in the cider-producing counties of England, it has more commonly evolved into a night of knocking on neighbor’s doors, caroling, and spreading good cheer during the holidays.
The drink has not always been associated with a benevolent seasonal spirit, though. In the Middle Ages, wassailing was a time for peasants to knock on the doors of the feudal lords and demand food, drink and charity in exchange for well wishes of ‘Waes Hail’ or ‘Good Health’. If the rich did not oblige they were likely to be cursed or have their estates vandalized.
The Christmas carol we sing today, “Here We Go a Caroling” is originally “Here We Go a Wassailing.” And the classic, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” makes more sense if you consider that the wassailers would stand outside the door and call for the master to bring them a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer (wassail). They wouldn’t leave until they got some.
In commercial versions of these carols the words sometimes get changed, so try singing the originals this year and offer some steaming wassail to any carolers you encounter.
Here are some wassail recipes from History.UK.com.
Lambswool is a derivative of wassail, where the ale is shaken and stirred to form a large foamy head, then mixed with baked crab apples. The soft, fleshy apples floating in the fluffy froth are said to resemble lamb’s wool. The drink was very popular during a holiday called Twelfth Night, which falls the 12th day after Christmas, the day your true love should give you twelve drummers drumming.
Traditionally, Twelfth Night was a holiday marked by wild celebration and general raucous merriment when the royal and wealthy acted like the peasants and vice versa. A king’s cake would be baked with a bean in it, and the peasant lucky enough to get the bean in his slice was dubbed the Lord of Misrule and permitted to officiate over the feast and the entire upside-down night — that is until midnight when all returned to order.
At contemporary dining tables the king’s cake is often reserved for the children of the family. The bean finder may get a small gift or be the honorary lord of the feast while the adults indulge in a few pints of lambswool.
If you want to try making lambswool, you can go to HistoricalFoods.com to see how.
A toddy is any alcoholic drink made with boiling water, sugar and spices. The traditional Scottish hot toddy is whiskey, boiling water, and sugar or honey with the optional addition of cloves, cinnamon, or lemon. Like most heated or mulled cocktails, it was created to bring some joy and warm spirits, emotionally and literally, to the dark and cold winter. The hot toddy and other drinks like it have become associated with the holiday season partially because the need for these spirits was strongest during the solstice.
Hot toddy was also probably invented to appeal to the non-drinkers of Scotland. The whiskey had a harsh, earthy flavor and was drunk more easily when heated and mixed with sugar. The origin of its name is debatable, perhaps derived from a liquor of the same name fermented from palm tree sap in India, or perhaps from Todian Spring which supplied Edinburgh with its water.
This winter, on those frigid nights when the breath plumes from your mouth like a chimney, why not duck into the dim light of your neighborhood pub, hang your hat by the frosy door, and dip into a steaming stein of hot toddy with the regulars?
About.com has a five minute recipe you can follow.
While Europeans were drinking their toddies with whiskey, brandy or sherry, the colonists were taking advantage of a new resource: sugar. Refining imported raw sugar left a fortunate byproduct, and by the 1650s distilleries were making a liquor from the molasses called rum. Rum was one of the cheapest and most widely available drinks in the colonies and thus became the go-to spirit for the Yankees’ toddy needs.
At a time when the sanitary standards of drinking water were questionable, sterile liquor was a popular beverage, so people came up with creative ways to prepare their drinks. Hot buttered rum was also a great way to warm the lungs during the frozen Northeastern American winters.
Originally the drink was associated with secular holidays like Thanksgiving and New Year due to the Puritan belief of abstaining during religious holidays. But as restrictions mellowed, its popularity met in the middle and became a staple Christmas beverage.
Traditionally hot buttered rum is made with dark rum aged in oak barrels to mature the molasses flavor, though it can also be made with Captain Morgan for a spicier flavor or Bacardi for something milder. You can celebrate Hot Buttered Rum Day on Jan 17, which coincidentally or not is also the date of the original Twelfth Night celebration before the Christian calendar was introduced.
Here’s a recipe for hot buttered rum from Emeril Lagasse on FoodNetwork.com.
Chocolate drink had been used for centuries as a healing and fortifying recipe by the Aztecs when Cortez encountered them in the 1500s. Their drink was cold, bitter, and flavored with spices and chili peppers. In 1528, Cortez returned to Spain, bringing cocoa beans and the chocolate drink recipe with him. The drink was so well-received that the Spanish kept their formula a secret for almost 100 years, during which time the recipe changed, becoming a hot drink without chiles with the addition of cane sugar.
In 1615, Spanish princess Anna of Austria introduced the drink to her new husband, King Louis XIII of France. News of the rich potion quickly spread throughout Europe and by 1657 the first chocolate houses were established in London and Paris. Later in the 17th century milk was added to the recipe, and in 1828 — 200 years after the drink was first conceived in Europe — a Dutchman named Hendrick Van Houten developed a technique of squeezing the cocoa butter out of the seed then cooling, pulverizing and sifting the remaining part. The result was something similar to the instant cocoa powder we pour into hot water or milk to make hot chocolate today.
Hot chocolate is a winter drink, and you can choose to see it as a commercial emblem of the holiday season. Even so, after digging out the car and shoveling the driveway, or battling blizzards on a cold commute, a warm cup of cocoa is hard to beat.
Check out five variations on hot chocolate at ChocoBlog.com.
In its simplest and most traditional form, posset was hot milk curdled with ale or wine and often spiced. This mixture has origins dating back to 100 AD when milk and eggs were revered as symbols of fertility and everlasting life, and alcohol had special significance in religious ceremonies.
The ingredients would be drunk during festivals and offered to the gods in thick leather sheaths, which symbolized the armor of the warring cultures and was the only appropriate vessel for a masculine god. This custom prevailed into the Middle Ages, but as cultures became more “civilized” and fighting armor evolved, a pewter mug was used as the offering container instead.
A posset has three distinct layers: the frothy layer called the grace, a custard layer in the middle, and the alcohol at the bottom, which was served in a special posset pot. The pots were often made of silver and extremely ornate and were given for gifts at weddings and special occasions. They look like a hybrid between a teapot and a baby’s sippy cup, and the traditional way to imbibe is to sip directly from the spout rather than pour a cup.
Contemporary posset resembles a custardy desert that can be indulged in year-round, but the historical drink makes the list for perhaps its most lasting holiday legacy: egg nog.
Don’t be scared. You can make it by following one of the recipes at HistoricFood.com.
This classic holiday drink is a descendant of posset. Nog was an old English term used for strong beer, and as the posset recipe evolved, revelers began mixing the nog with eggs. In Middle English, a noggin was the wooden bowl used to serve the egg concoction. And in the Colonies, where rum was rampant and a popular pseudonym for the potable was grog, the egg drink was called egg and grog.
The drink was originally only reserved for the English aristocracy as dairy products were scarce and expensive, as were the brandy or fortified wines they spiked them with. In America — where there was no shortage of cows and chickens, or inexpensive rum for that matter — the drink was widely drunk.
Egg nog has become a quintessential holiday drink in America and far more popular there than where it was originally conceived. You can make your own or buy a few cartons at your local supermarket, pour it in a large punch bowl and mix in some rum, whiskey, brandy, or if you’d like to go more traditional, ale. Then serve it to your friends and family as ultimately this drink is best suited for parties.
You can peruse recipes to make your own egg nog at EggNogaholic.com.
The Tom and Jerry is a lost American classic made from brandy and rum added to a base of heated egg nog. It was created by Pierce Egan, a sportswriter in the 1820s, for publicity purposes to boost sales of his book Life in London: Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. Because egg nog was used, the drink was particularly designed for Christmas.
The Tom and Jerry was a holiday staple for a century in America, until the ’60s when it all but disappeared from the country’s cocktail vernacular. This holiday season why not resurrect egg nog’s fallen comrade and drink a piece of Americana?
A Tom and Jerry should be served in an Irish coffee glass or a coffee mug. But if you want an authentic drinking experience, there used to be official white Tom and Jerry mugs that can still be found in thrift stores or on eBay.
The recipe for a Tom and Jerry can be found on WineIntro.com.
Apple trees haven been cultivated since the times of the ancient Egyptians, and their fruit has been the symbol of knowledge, fertility, and immortality in countless fables and religions. Apple Cider in both hard and virgin forms has been a mainstay of the holiday season in which we’ve celebrated birth and youth for thousands of years.
By 1650, almost every farm in England had an orchard and cider-making facilities. The colonists took apple seeds with them to the New World, and as English grains for ale-making did not grow well in New England, they soon turned to apples for their spirits.
Cider was omnipresent in America, brewed by the tens of barrels for just one family for one season. In fact, the drink was such an essential part of American dining that when prohibition all but halted the production of cider, thousands of orchards were cleared for new crops as the famers saw no other useful purpose for the trees. Because of prohibition, this once-essential drink now has only a small niche market of drinkers in America.
Because of the timing of harvest and the low shelf life of virgin cider, Thanksgiving and Christmas became cider’s high season. During these cold months it was often mulled or mixed with hard liquors. The most popular cider cocktail was called a stone wall, which you can easily make today at your next family gathering by mixing cider with rum.
Making your own cider is a serious undertaking, but instructions on how to do it can be found here.
Glogg goes by many names: glühwein in Germany, svařené víno in the Czech Republic, vin fiert in Romania. In English speaking countries, we know it as mulled wine. Glogg is from Sweden, where it is traditionally drunk on St. Lucia’s Day, a holiday that ultimately celebrates the victory of light over darkness. It also maintains many centuries old pagan traditions, including using fire as the rebirth of the sun and evergreens and holly as symbolic of lasting life through cold and darkness.
These traditions derive from the ancient Nordic holiday celebration of Yule. When the Christians converted the Pagan Scandinavians to Christianity, rather than eliminate the deeply engrained traditions of Yule, they simply held their own holiday around the same time and adopted many of the same traditions. This holiday was called Christmas.
Because Glogg has origins with the Yule celebration and St. Lucia’s Day falls on December 13, it has become a drink for the entire holiday season. Additionally, in older times, wine would often reach the end of its shelf life during the winter months, so those who wanted to continue drinking palatable wine warmed it and added sweeteners and spices to mask the acidic flavors.
Historically in Sweden it was bad form for visitors to leave your house during the holiday season without being offered some hospitality, otherwise, the Christmas spirit would leave your home. To foster a warmer and more festive holiday spirit in your home, you can try it yourself. Glogg is often served in a glass, mixed with raisins and almonds and the best accompaniment is freshly baked gingerbread cookies or gingersnaps.
Here’s a recipe for Swedish glogg from Food.com.