The Christmas season is not just a day but a season. The Christmas season lasts from Christmas Eve (after the service) until Epiphany Day on January 6th. This is what is commonly called the 12 days of Christmas (which if you exclude Christmas Eve for the purpose of counting) makes the night of January 5th the twelfth night, or as some call it, Epiphany Eve.
This night has traditionally been one of great celebration. One of the traditions is to eat the edible part of your Christmas decorations, which usually consists of fruits placed on wreaths or used as ornaments on the Christmas tree. Often this event was when the Christmas decorations had to come down to bring good luck. However, in some traditions the decorations stay up and don’t come down until Candlemas on February 2nd.
Our favorite twelfth-night tradition is wassailing. Today wassailing has morphed into caroling, and this night is a great night to sing or enjoy Christmas carols for the last time of the season. The world wassail is an Anglo-Saxon blessing waes-hael, meaning “be of good health.” The traditional response was drinc-hael, or “drink and be healthy.” This is something akin to offering a toast. The two parties would then drink from the wassail bowl which contained a warm drink of mulled hard cider or sometimes mead, ale, or wine.
As you might expect these celebration could get out of hand, if you had a number of people to bless. As a result, twelfth-night festivities where deemed illegal in some places. It surprisingly shares a common history with trick-or-treating. On a holy evening, it is sacrilege to not give alms to the poor and those in need. So people would go from door to door asking for a blessing. However, if a blessing—food or drink where not given, things could deteriorate quickly. Hence the trick part of trick-or-treating, or the “we wont go until we get some (figgy pudding of course)” part of wassailing. We hope your holiday party does not end up in a hostage situation!
The final custom of wassailing is orchard wassailing, which is singing a blessing to your apple (or other fruit) orchards. This sometimes involves pouring out a bit of wassail on the roots of a tree. We find this tradition a beautiful reminder of our connection with creation. Sometimes, it is easy to forget where our food comes from. We have a number of fruit trees that we love and already talk to, so why not sing them a blessing, it cannot hurt (They do love carbon dioxide).
Here is our recipe for wassail. We’ve provided a variation to make it with alcohol or without. If you want to taste some of the alcohol from the version which includes it, make sure to not overheat it or it’ll boil all the alcohol off.
Pictured Above: The Twelfth Night Feast, 1662 oil painting by Jan Steen, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The picture depicts the Twelfth Night celebrations marking the end of the Christmas festivities and the beginning of Epiphany.
1/2 cup water
4 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1 quart hard cider*
2 cups port wine*
1 cup brandy*
*To make non-alcoholic:
Use 6 cups apple cider and 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice in place of the hard cider, wine, and brandy.
- Preheat oven to 350F.
- Using a small knife or apple corer, remove the core from the apples. Place the apples in a 4-quart or larger dutch oven or other oven-proof pot.
- Fill the cavity of each apple with 1 tablespoon of dark brown sugar.
- Push the whole cloves into the the peel of the orange and then place the orange in the pot. Add the 1/2 cup of water.
- Place in the oven and bake until the apples are tender but still maintain their shape about 40 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the oven and place on the stove top. Cut the orange into quarters and return to the pot.
- Add 1 quart hard cider, 2 cups port wine, 1 cup brandy, 1/2 lemon, 2 cinnamon sticks, and 1 teaspoon whole allspice.
- To make non-alcoholic: Use 6 cups apple cider and 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice in place of the hard cider, wine, and brandy.
- Barely bring to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Serve immediately or keep warm until ready to serve.