Re-Enchanting Winter with Apple Cider Wassail

The sweet and faithful apple has been re-enchanting me during these darker autumn days.

The apple is such a quintessential representation of autumn to me. Right now, I’m seeing so many of us wearing our best plaid flannel outfits and wanting to go apple picking, drink apple cider, and bake apple pie.

…and there’s a very important reason for that.

Take yourself back to the darkening days of pastoral life, when apples weren’t available year-round in a grocery store (and we weren’t limited to just 5 or so varieties – there were hundreds!).

The apple was one the sweetest fruit often left to eat during these darkening days towards winter.

Did you know that apples are in the rose family? So their connection to sweetness and love is deep. Old folk medicine tales say that one should always share an apple with those you love, it keeps the bond strong and healthy.

When you cut an apple crosswise, it forms the shape of a pentacle (a 5 pointed star). And, if you think about it, we humans are shaped like five-pointed stars when we spread our legs and stretch out our arms and count our heads. Apples remind us that we are sacred and whole in our bodies, here and now.

Apples also provide a great source fiber and are a valuable digestion aid during these days of eating heavier, fatty foods to keep warm during winter. They provide quick energy (great to eat before a workout) and soothe inflammation in the body. Old folk remedies recommend eating warm baked apples for a sore throat and fevers.

But the apple tradition I’m most enamored with this darker season is the tradition of wassailing.

Native to many European cultures, the word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wes hal, or “be whole”—a wish for your beloved ones good health and wholeness.

In the depths of dark midwinter, a community would make a big batch of hot apple cider and drink it out in the apple orchards to bless the coming growing season. It was essentially a fertility ritual—a love song to the apple and an appeal to the spirits by singing, dancing, and pouring cider on the trees—during a time when it feels like the land is dead or asleep. It’s a prayer for rebirth.

They would sometimes soak homemade apple cakes in cider and place it up in the tree branches for the good folk and spirits to taste the sweetness and stay on the people’s good side. Usually, a bonfire was involved and it could get pretty rowdy (the wassail was usually spiked with whiskey). They would tie ribbons to the branches and the men would whip the ground with willow branches (called “apple hollerin’”).

This visiting of the apple orchards in merriment evolved into visiting homes—singing songs, offering a drink from the wassail bowl, and exchanging gifts to help neighbors get through the cold and dark winter.

…and this has become the practice of modern-day caroling during the winter holiday season.

Would you like to join me in making some wassail and singing to the trees this winter holiday season? Here’s a recipe I’ve been working with:

Ancestral Apple Wassail Recipe

Adapted from a recipe given to me by Liz Migliorelli

  • 1 gallon (or more) apple cider
  • 1 large cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 13  allspice berries(one for each moon of the year)
  • 1 apple sliced crosswise (to reveal the pentacle within each slice)
  • 3 star anise
  • 1 small orange stuffed with 8 whole cloves (one for each festival of the year)
  • Sweetener like maple syrup or honey, to taste (I rarely add honey, because it’s already so sweet)
  • Whiskey (also optional, but helps add warmth and it’s definitely what would have been done back in the day)

In a large pot, gently heat the cider with the cinnamon stick, allspice berries, apple, star anise, and clove-studded orange. Then add the alcohol and sweetener, to taste. Don’t let the blend boil, you don’t want to boil off the alcohol. Serve steaming in hot mugs, wrap a scarf around your head, and head out to the trees to sing your songs.

I want to credit and thank my teacher, Liz Migliorelli, whose class The Folk Medicine & Magic of Old Europe was incredibly helpful in my research and understanding of this vast topic. This work is inspired by that class.

Re-enchanting Winter with Apple Cider Wassail

Wisdom and rituals for slow & seasonal living

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