The founding fathers look pretty proper and straitlaced when they’re stamped on the front of legal currency, but these guys knew how to party. Or at least, they knew how to drink. And many of them knew how to mix drinks, brew beer, distill spirits, and how to make money doing it.
Today we think of the holidays primarily as Thanksgiving, Christmas (+Hannukah or Kwansaa if you’re being politically correct) and New Year’s (with an extension into football playoff season if you live in a city where the team is doing well). It was different in colonial days.
To begin with, there was no Thanksgiving. The pilgrims didn’t start that holiday–they just posed for the pictures. Colonial governors gave thanks to God for victories over the “heathen savages,” but the first national Thanksgiving holiday wasn’t proclaimed until Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in 1863. So the founding fathers were not downing pumpkin pie on the last Thursday in November, and if they were up at 4 a.m., it was to milk cows or darn stockings, not to shop the Black Friday sales.
Holidays in the colonial era might be church holidays or militia muster days when men gathered from far and wide to socialize, drink, and attempt to march in formation with loaded firearms. Market days and funerals were big occasions, too. And the biggest holiday of the Christmas season was not Christmas, it was the twelfth night after Christmas which is called, not surprisingly, Twelfth Night. But regardless of whether The Holidays were really The Holidays in the colonial era, the founding fathers did enjoy special adult beverages during the Christmas season, so let’s look at those.
First, eggnog. Seems colonial, but the word doesn’t show up in period texts. My guess is that rich people drank it and called it something else. To learn more about eggnog, check out my post on Enigmatic Eggnog.
How about wassail? We had to sing a song about it high school choir. We hated the song, and that hatred carried over to the drink, or at least it would have if we’d ever had any around. I haven’t even seen wassail served among historical reenactors who are notorious for consuming bizarre concoctions in the name of research as well as anything with alcohol in it. So what is it?
It’s not in my two biggest colonial-era cookbooks, for starters, although I have seen it referred to as the “best-known” holiday beverage in colonial days. And the recipes I have found have nothing in common except the element of heat. Wassail is served warm and it often does not have any dairy products in it (unlike posset, syllabub and a host of other popular holiday beverages described in my article about eggnog). Other than that, rules don’t seem to apply. Patricia Mitchell’s book on “Colonial Christmas Cooking” includes a recipe making wassail with a six-pack of ale, six cups of dark rum, and some sugar and spices. She also includes a weaker recipe made with non-alcoholic cider and fruit juices. The only ingredient those two recipes have in common is cloves. Other recipes are made with wine or hard cider. There again, the only commonality is the cloves, though nutmeg and ginger also show up pretty regularly. The other aspect that the recipes all share is that wassail is served steaming hot in a large bowl or cauldron to be shared by many.
Wassail, like so many of our beloved Christmas traditions, dates back to pagan practices. It was a toast drunk to keep evil spirits away from the trees that produced cider apples. The name “wassail” comes from “waes hael” which was an Anglo-Saxon toast or greeting telling others to “be hale (well).” So you might wish your neighbor “waes hael,” but first you’d wish it to the trees that will be growing the apples you need to make the drink you will later use to toast your neighbor. It’s important to get the priorities straight.
One chronicler relayed a custom from Devonshire in 1790 where the townspeople would gather in the orchard with pan of cider. They’d each dip some out in a cup, drink half and pour the other half on the tree while singing songs to encourage it to be fruitful. In other places, revelers not only encouraged the trees but would also threaten them by banging on the trunk or firing shots into the branches. Don’t try this at home, kids.
For those not threatening trees in the orchard, drinking from the wassail bowl became a tradition at Twelfth Night or New Year’s Eve (possibly back when New Year’s Day was still in March — see my post on New Year’s). Since I can find little period evidence of the drink (and admittedly it’s because my books are all piled up in the hallway and I’ve only pulled out a few of them) the wassail recipe is all a nebulous tradition as far as I can tell. It may have started with a toast to the apple trees, but eventually I think it became like Chop Suey – throw whatever you have in the pot, heat it up and voila, it’s ready.
I may try that myself this New Year’s Eve. But I’m not sure if the collection of light beer, Dr. Pepper and Mojito mix we have leftover from a party the other night will taste very good heated up, even if I add a bunch of cloves, put it in a big bowl and sing about it. I’d better have some champagne on hand, just in case. (Or not — see my post on Exploding Bottles)
Whatever you drink, I hope your New Year gets off to a terrific start. And don’t forget to toast the trees!
Pictures courtesy of “The Hymns and Carols of Christmas,” http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/Notes_On_Carols/wassailing.htm