The word “wassail” has been used for more than a 1,000 years, appearing as early as the 8th century in the poem Beowulf. Throughout the single digit centuries it was used as either salutatory gesture (wassail!) or a noun denoting celebration (get wassailed). It was first applied to a steaming bowl of ale and fortified wine, called the “wassail bowl,” around the 13th century, when it became common for medieval party-goers to dip bread and cakes into a big bowl of ale. (By the way, this practice of floating bread in a big bowl of liquid gave birth to our modern celebratory use of the word “toast.”) The wassail bowl’s contents continued to evolve, but the practice of communal “wassailing” survived all the way through the Renaissance. During the 17th century the wassail bowl took to the streets and became an offering of peace and prosperity during the holidays, carried from door to door, the verb “wassailing” eventually evolving to denote drunken revelry in a more general sense.
When the puritans made their way to America, they brought the wassail bowl with them and it remained a fixture in America throughout the 19th century, giving birth to other wassail-like drinks, like the Hot Toddy and Eggnog. While still a Christmas tradition in many households the Wassail has toiled in obscurity throughout most of the 20th century, but without reason. This simple, steamy combination of oxidized sherry, tart apple cider and spicy cinnamon are about as iconic as they come.