Wassail | The Original Mulled Christmas Drink

Think Christmas, think Christmas tree (obviously), snow, reindeer, Santa, roast turkey, mince pies, maybe chestnuts and cold hands wrapped around warming cups of mulled wine. Amongst a multitude of other warm, fuzzy festive icons that we identify with Christmas, mulled wine is definitely up there as the go-to Christmas tipple.

But for centuries a rival spice-based hot beverage was, and still is, the regaling drink of choice over the Christmas period. A drink steeped in cultural meaning, traditional ceremony and a great deal of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon – we’re talking about wassail, or mulled cider.

The word wassail itself describes a traditional ceremony that takes place in cider orchards across the south in winter, known as wassailing. At these ceremonies, traditional hymns are sung, hot mulled cider is poured on to the trees and toast dipped in mulled cider is hung high in the branches to, well, quite literally raise a toast to a successful year and encourage another fruitful harvest the coming year.

The word wassail derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘waes haeil’, meaning ‘to be in good health’ and features in countless ancient traditional Christmas hymns across the cider making counties of the UK. These pagan-based rituals are thought to date back to pre-1066 and in recent years have become popular again due to cider’s renewed popularity.

I first tried wassail three years ago when visiting Cornwall – before I came to my senses and moved here – but, being the middle of summer and naively thinking that this flagon of Cornish Orchards Wassail I’d picked up from the Padstow Farm Shop was standard scrumpy, I drank it cold on the beach and soon realised it was like no cider I’d ever tried before.

It was perfectly delicious, but a non-local drinking a traditional Christmas drink, cold, in the middle of summer doesn’t bode well for credibility. We live and learn.

I now know it’s much better warmed up and enjoyed in front of a log fire. Give me mulled cider over mulled wine any day.

Merry Christmas and ‘waes haeil’ to you all!