The lyrics to the traditional (albeit semi-confusing) holiday song are “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green; here we come a-wand’ring so fair to be seen. Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too…” But what does that mean? For those of you who don’t know, wassailing is the long-held traditional ceremony of wandering from home to home drinking mulled cider and singing in salute to the good health of the vines that produced the fruit that made the cider, thought to ensure a good harvest the following season. This merry-making tradition typically happened on Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany, also considered the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and known most commonly as January 6th.
In Prince Edward County, the tradition is going strong. Of course, we don’t use the term “grog” anymore – perhaps simply because it doesn’t sound as appealing as it truly is. These days, wineries in The County offer up their own take on mulled wine – from a warm, clove and orange infused Pinot Noir at Harwood Estate Winery, to Sandbanks unexpected blend of Shoreline White and Late Harvest, paired with savoury tartes. You’ll also be privy to a jolly throwback to wassail’s musical tradition – a taste of VanAlstine White Port at Karlo Estate is the reward for performing the Wassail Song.
This tradition stems from the cider-producing South West counties, and the South East counties of England. Here, it was once common practice to make mulled cider from that year’s best batch and to take it around to neighbours celebrating the harvest and toasting to good future harvests. All the while with the admirable aim of getting quite drunk while doing so, of course. Although wassailing is the action of sharing the cider, the cider itself came to be known as wassail. Hence, wassailing is known as the action of sharing wassail: the drink. Plenty of traditional recipes can be found scattered across the internet today, most a combination of apple juice infused with spices and mixed with dark liquor.
So how did the Bay of Quinte come to add wassailing to its list of historical traditions? By doing nothing more than preserving the traditions brought here by our most esteemed ancestors: United Empire Loyalists. Still loyal to the British crown at the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) UELs were forced from their homes in America to settle the land of the British Colony of Canada. Wassailing was one such tradition brought from England to America that the United Empire Loyalists again brought with them up to Canada.
We have to agree that the United Empire Loyalists that settled in Prince Edward County had a lot to be thankful for and thus, to go wassailing about when the end of the Christmas season rolled around and the time for wassail was upon them. It might be a new tradition to many of us, but it’s one that has roots to remind us of the days of yore.
Wassail runs on weekends from November 21 – December 6 in The County, with bus tours offered on Saturdays.