Hi, Bethany here. Dad had back surgery yesterday and while under intense amounts of anesthesia asked me to guest blog today. Let’s hope this was a good idea. I considered several creative suggestions from friends and decided to consult the dictionary.com “Word of the Day” archives. I scrolled through the archives of words that were chosen for my birthday, December 24th, looking for one that seemed appropriate.
’99: Vociferous. ( Dad has been there & done that ) ’00: Sporadic. ’01: Bedizen. ’02: Subfusc. ’03: Luminary. ( good one! ) ’04: Cornucopia. ( too easy ) ’05: Firmament. ’06: Wassail. ( Ding. Ding. Ding. We have a winner. ) How appropriate that “wassail” should be the word for a Christmas Eve.
There are several definitions for wassail. Dictionary.com initial suggestion is, “an expression of good wishes on a festive occasion, especially in drinking to some one.” That didn’t totally resonate with me, based on my life-long affiliation with wassail. I searched further and found the definition above. I also went to Wikipedia to see what they had to say. I was pleasantly surprised to find a historic reference to apple orchards, which was new for me.
“In the cider-producing counties in the South West of England wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive. The purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next; the wassail Queen is then lifted into the boughs of the tree where she places toast soaked in wassail from the clayen cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year).”
Most folks are familiar with the Christmas carol, ( here is a You Tube video ) “The Wassail Song”, ( and another You Tube video with a totally different interpretation of a song about wassail from students at the Univeristy of Miami ) but may not know what it is all about. There is some debate about when it was exactly penned, with most linking it to the 1700′s in England. One source mentions it was rumored to have been heard by Shakespeare outside of his house at Christmas in the 15/1600′s. The same source also states, “In the seventeenth century the wassail was a definite institution – the carrying about of a bowl of spiced ale from house to house to drink healths in expectation of a contribution ( during caroling ). Nowadays the utterance of a “Merry Christmas’ is often judged sufficient for the tip.”
Just thinking about the word, triggers several senses. Smell for sure. For me, wassail in synonymous with the holidays. Our house has been filled with the scent of the simmering spiced beverage for as long as I can remember. Often from Thanksgiving through New Year’s when entering my parents’ home, there is the faint scent of apple, cranberry, cinnamon and cloves. As kids it was a treat to participate in the process. We would begin by studding oranges with cloves.
Mom would get out the yellow corn holders ( used on each end of an ear of corn, so you don’t burn your fingers ) and supply us with several oranges and a small bowl of cloves. We would craft designs in the oranges using the corn holders and then stuff the little holes with the cloves. When we were done, the oranges would be floated in the pot of simmering wassail. Mom’s recipe includes apple juice, cranberry juice and an occasional cinnamon stick. The scent is heavenly and the taste is warm and soothing. Mom still gives it as a gift during the holidays.
Mostly the smell of wassail reminds me of friendships. Through the late 70′s & early 80′s, Christmas Eve was a celebration with our closest friends. Besides being my birthday, it always seemed like a magical day. So much pomp and circumstance. Between the kids service and midnight mass at church, our house would be full of wonderful characters from my youth. Loud happy voices, Christmas cookies, laughter, carols around the piano, mom’s hot crab dip, candlelight, wreaths and our twinkly tree in the background . . . and always wassail. It was tradition. Every year. It was a multi-sensory event. Sights and sounds and the smell of apple. Hugs and holiday wishes for a Merry Christmas. The evening would come to a close as midnight mass finished and we exited into the still, quiet of the night air. If we were lucky, falling from the sky would be big, damp, wet snowflakes . . . carpeting our little town with a blanket of white. Then, home for more wassail.
Thanks, Dad. I’m glad you are feeling better! I guess tomorrow on The Penultimate Word will be politics, as usual.