Wassails and Toast – traditions of Christmases past
Cracking open a bottle of something special you’ve squirrelled away all year, and presenting it with aplomb on the 25th… Is there anything more quintessentially Christmassy?
For what is essentially the most important meal of the year, it’s no surprise that there are a host of rituals and customs which surround sharing a drink or feast in Midwinter.
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Ever been tempted to a good ‘Wassailing’? The focus of a hundred folk carols and derived from a pre-Christian tradition of exchanging songs for gifts. As a forerunner to carolling, revellers would go with a hot bowl of cider (or spirited punch, mulled wine or beer) to their local orchard and make such a racket that any lurking evil spirits would be scared away. The Wassail songs – of which We Wish You A Merry Christmas derived – also thrived in the Middle Ages, where drinks and gifts were exchanged between different steps on the Feudal ladder. The Wassail bowl of booze is central to it all, and the custom still continues in the West Country today.
Mulled Wine has its origins in 2nd Century Rome, where a prescribed mix of wine, spices and herbs would be used to drive out the diseases and dangers of the bleak Midwinter. (There’s a full history here.) But the drink took on a much more festive and impressive aura in the Victorian era. Scrooge, when sitting down with Bob Cratchit to discuss his plans for the future, makes a Smoking Bishop; expensive red wine poured over bitter oranges and mulled in a vessel with a long funnel. The sugar and spices are inserted within. Here too is a sense of theatre that surrounds the drink, it sounds more like a hipster cocktail concoction than a stewing pot of Gluehwein.
The only real way to kick-off Christmas morning is with a flute of Champagne. And you can go right the way back to 496 AD for the first recorded fizzy-festive-fry-up. The baptism of King Clovis I in Rhems occured on the 25th of that year and they used the wine closest to the Cathedral at Reims – Champagne. For 1,500 years then, this unique wine has been used to crown celebrations in the darkest months of the year. Although not yet a sparkling wine, the names Champagne and celebration became intrinsically linked.
Have you ever ‘raised a toast’ – and wondered why? Well it comes from the practise of dipping bits of charred, spiced bread into your drink in the 17th Century. Tasty.
But for the main event, it has to be a good bottle of carefully chosen wine. This too though, is not without pressure (both historical and social).
You can go back to Henry VIII for the first documented, royally appointed turkey dinner. But despite catering for well over a 1,000 attendants at his Yuletide Feasts, the “American bird” was centuries away from becoming the Christmas-meat of choice. You’d be guaranteed a good glass though. His annual drink bill came to a reported £6m a year (in today’s money) – including 600,000 gallons of beer a day for his court. The go-to wines of choice were not too dissimilar from today either – French wines of Bordeaux and Gascony, sweet Malmsey from Greece and even sack or Sherry from Xeres, Spain.
Christmas at the Tudor court, with excessive amounts of wine in attendance, can lay claim to beginning a lot of modern-day customs. With holly and ivy scattered all around, carols being sung, a yule log burning and the Lord of Misrule holding forth. You’d also need a chunky bottle of Bordeaux to get through “a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon”. All of this was put in a pastry case, called a coffin and was served surrounded by jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl”.
Opting for a couple of bottles with your 19th Century goose may have brought you to the attention of the Temperance Movement, who took aim at so called ‘Goose Clubs’ in London. These boozy dinner party societies put the bird at the centre of the table and ‘lured’ their members into spending more and more on the dreaded accompanying drink.
So when you sit down to dinner, meet up with friends or balance a solitary glass on your sofa’s arm this December; stop and think… That desire to meet up over a good bottle has shaped our relationship with Winter for years. Cheers to that.