Doing the Wassail 2016

“The Oak King” by Emily Balivet (for more by this artist, click here )


This New Year’s Eve Let’s Party Like It’s 1099

In general, I’m not a big one for rituals, but the Solstice exerts some weird influence on me and I find myself feverishly steeped in holiday traditions. The buying of a Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. The production of 27 dozen cookies and two pounds of fudge to be tinned and shipped hither and yon (an event known at our house as the Bake-a-Thon). Perhaps, the most “sacred” among these annual doings is the viewing of six holiday-themed movies, ending on Christmas Eve with the 1984 George C. Scott A Christmas Carol.

I have many favorite scenes from this lush version of Dickens’s tale, but oddly what most sticks in my head is a little throw-away bit where Tiny Tim and the whole Crachit gang belt out a song. “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wandering, so fair to be seen,” they sing blithely, huddled cheek-by-jowl in their dark little hovel. No matter that Bob Crachit’s boss Scrooge is, well, a scrooge, or that the Grim Reaper may soon claim Tiny Tim, the Crachits are imbued with the Christmas spirit, and damn if it isn’t infectious. I find myself humming that tune even in the sweltering heat of July, but what exactly does it mean: Here we come a-wassailing?

Digression #1: I have always been a sucker for the mysterious power of words. As a child, I was bewitched by Edward Lear’s line in “The Owl and the Pussycat”: “They dined on mince, and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon.” “Runcible,” a delicious slice of language that runs joyfully over the tongue. The Collins Dictionary defines a runcible spoon as a “forklike utensil with two broad prongs and one sharp, curving prong, as used for serving hors d’oeuvres.” Runcible, it notes, is a nonsense term coined in 1871 by Lear. Apparently, he used it to refer to a variety of objects, including cats, in his poems. We invent the language we need.

"Wassail" by Jeremy Tarling, London, United Kingdom.
“Wassail” by Jeremy Tarling, London, United Kingdom.

So, back to this wassailing thing. Wassail itself is a hot drink made with wine, beer, or cider, spices, sugar, and usually baked apples. Traditionally, it is served in a large communal bowl with handles and passed around at celebrations for Twelfth Night and Christmas Eve. (Wassail and wassailing clearly predate germ theory.) This would have been the wassail Shakespeare knew.

The original wassail was simply warmed mead—ale brewed with honey. Roasted crab apples, dropped into the mead, burst tartly to create a drink called “Lamb’s Wool” drunk on Lammas Day, which is nowhere near Twelfth Night (more about this later).

The word “wassail” was first noted in the 12th Century by the Normans as characteristic of the English, but seems to have been in usage for several centuries before that, a cobbled hybrid of the various groups who were always invading England in the dark old days—Vikings, Danes—with perhaps a dash of the native Druids. At any rate, by the time William the Conqueror arrived, wassailing was as English as Tooting Bec.

Digression #2: For the etymologists among you, Merriam-Webster reports the Middle English version of the word, wæs hæil, washayl, developed from the Old Norse ves heill “be well,” from ves (imperative singular of vera to be) + heill healthy. (Think on that next time you have a skull-splitting hangover.)

Besides going from house to house singing Christmas carols, “wassail” is also a term for “riotous reveling.” Listed among its synonyms are: bender, drunk, carouse, toot. Wassailing in this context involves imbibing liberal amounts of alcohol and enjoying oneself with friends in a noisy, lively manner. Of course, it’s entirely possible to do this in conjunction with singing Christmas carols for a real Wassail Whammy.

The point of all this caroling and carousing in medieval England was to awaken the cider apple trees while frightening away the evil spirits who might interfere with a good harvest the following year.

And it’s still going on. In a scenario straight out of the British ITV series Midsomer Murders, the Apple Orchard Wassailing takes place at Carhampton each year on January 17, the date of Twelfth Night before England adopted the Gregorian calendar. The Wassailers build a bonfire and pour cider around the trunk of the biggest apple tree.

The Wassail Queen
The Wassail Queen—and-how—to-go-wassailing-updated-for-2014/

They then—and this is my favorite part—hang cider-soaked pieces of toast from the branches. In theory, this appeases the robins who represent the “good spirits” of the tree. Personally, I think it’s the sort of thing that happens when the cider is flowing a little too freely. But wait, there’s more. Someone (hopefully, the soberest) fires a shotgun overhead to frighten away evil spirits and the assembled group sings “Old apple tree, we wassail thee . . .”

Digression #3: I promised you a note on Lammas, the origin of the drink Lamb’s Wool (you’ll find a recipe below). Shakespeare mentions Juliet’s birth on Lammas Eve, but Lammas Day, August 1, predates the Bard by centuries. Pagan in origin, Lammas was the first of three autumn harvest festivals in the medieval agricultural year (marking the end of the haying that had begun at Midsummer). Among the romps enjoyed in this merrymaking was the “loosing of a sheep” in the meadow among the mowers “for him to keep who could catch it.” (God, I love the English!)

So, as we prepare to ring in the New Year, having fired up the Yule Log (relinquishing the dark half of the year and celebrating the rebirth of the Oak King on Solstice Night), and hung up the Mistletoe (representing the seed of the Divine, and gathered long ago in the forest by Druids at Midwinter), let us wassail loudly and joyfully in a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

To quote Dr. Chasuble (The Importance of Being Ernest): Isn’t language a curious thing?



Author Roberta Trahan contributed this Americanized, easy-to-make version of a traditional Old English recipe when she was a guest host on Stephanie Dray’s website.


3 apples, peeled, cored & finely chopped

3 tablespoons butter

3 (12 ounce) bottles dark beer

1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a casserole dish, bake apples and butter for 30 minutes or until the apples are soft.

In a large saucepan combine: apples, beer, brown sugar and spices. Heat until hot, and serve (unstrained) in mugs.

If you’d like to try your hand at the more authentic old-world brew, click here.

The Greatest of All Gifts






“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”    Helen Keller

I was driving along the other day, my mind on the errands at hand: return a shirt ordered online, pick up wine and a hot mustard dip for our holiday party, locate a few more stocking stuffers. Brenda Lee was belting out “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” on the CD player, and I was feeling pretty good about crossing off a few more items on my never-ending to-do list. Suddenly Brenda’s voice grew growly, then inaudible. What the? The music blared, deafening, then faded once more, and I knew in that weird way you do that my car was about to seize up. Which it promptly did. Completely. Died. It was a real X-Files moment, the one where people are driving along through endless woods and their car is hit by an electric zap! that literally stops time just before they’re spirited away by aliens. Except I was not on a deserted road. I was on a congested state highway, twenty yards from a major intersection, and no shoulder to pull off the road, even if my car had been capable of limping a few more feet, which it wasn’t.

I tried turning over the engine. Nothing. Ditto for the radio. At least the flashers stillfriendship_hands_friends  AlexVan worked. Keeping one eye on the endless stream of cars steering wildly around me, I hit “2” on my speed dial. My husband picked up.

“The car just died,” I wailed. “Right on Route 9. I’m sitting here blocking the road and I can’t move.” A large Target truck barreled down on me. I hoped his brakes were working. How much stopping distance does a truck require?

“You have your Triple-A card?” my husband asked.

“Triple-A card,” I repeated, trying to remember if I had put the card in the purse beside me or my turquoise leather bag. Perhaps it was still in the plastic ziplock with the other stuff I left at home when we last traveled overseas.

“I’ll call Triple-A,” my husband said. “And then I’ll come get you.” With these assurances, I flipped through my wallet, found the Triple-A card, then dialed 911 to get a squad car to the scene. Traffic, by now, was seriously snarled. Twenty minutes and a second squad car later, the police had pushed my Ford wagon to the intersection, around the corner, and off the road. My husband arrived shortly after, his red Hyundai cheering me greatly even as he waved and smiled.

USE A laugh is the shortest distance“I called Triple-A,” he reported, joining me on the curb. “But the local operation’s small and they won’t be able to get a tow truck here for another hour.” The hour came and went as the afternoon light faded to night and the mist became a steady rain. We called Triple-A again. Were put on hold. Promised the tow truck would only be “five more minutes.” Just as my toes were growing numb, the truck roared out of the dark. I gave the driver instructions on where to take the car. Almost two hours had passed since my husband had arrived. During that time, he never once complained about the interruption to his day, the rain, the interminable wait for the truck. We chatted. We joked. He was, as always, his wonderful, generous self.

It’s all too easy in the mad dash of 21st century life to get caught up in the pressures to do more, be more, especially at the holidays. All the trimmings, the trappings, the stuff. But none of it, none of it is half so important as the people we love. I was reminded of friendship-women friends Pixabaythat when my car died on a busy road. I had the Triple-A card, and I eventually did dial 911, but my first call was an emotional SOS to my husband: Something crap has happened and I need you. Knowing you will not be abandoned—you can’t put a price on it, this greatest of gifts.

I count myself lucky in this life to love and be loved by some amazingly wonderful people, dear friends all. This post is for them. As Clarence reminds George in It’s a Wonderful Life: No man is a failure who has friends.


The Mind of a Writer

       photo-1422284763110-6d0edd657b13  black and white spiral into light                                             

I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.”

William Carlos Williams


A blast of chill air and the roar of London traffic accompany the man’s entrance to the Bloomsbury eatery. I return to my paper, but a moment later he’s there. Five, six feet away, arguing with the hostess. He doesn’t want one of the small café tables. He wants a booth. The hostess explains—twice—that booths are for parties of three or more. The man holds his ground. His voice rises. I take in his agitation, the untidy shock of dark hair, the furtive eyes. I think: He wants a booth where he can’t easily be seen. I notice one café table tucked into a corner near the register just as the hostess offers him that very table. After a moment’s hesitation, he accepts.

A second man enters. Fair-haired, tall, better-dressed than the first—his sweater cashmere, his haircut expensive. He talks to no one and takes a seat in the opposite corner. Now, both men are at the front, facing each other across the expanse of the restaurant. Each can see the street while remaining in shadow. My gaze returns to the first man. Why was a boothphoto-14 Man Grand Central MIND so important to him? Is he angry or just nervous? And if the latter, what is he jittery about? Is he waiting for something or someone? I notice his smartphone on the table. Is he expecting a call? He might have pushed for a booth because the call he expects is not a conversation he wishes to be overheard.

I glance over and see the posh man also has a smartphone lying on his table. Coincidence? Likely. Everyone gets out their phone when they sit down in a restaurant. But, what if the two men are connected? What if they’re planning something. The wild-haired one keeps glancing toward the street, his fingers drumming ceaselessly on the table, his eggs over toast growing cold.

photo-1430760814266-9c81759e5e55   contact meThe tony guy picks up his phone. Who is he calling? If the anxious man picks up his phone now…  He does. Another coincidence, or are the two men communicating? Planning a heist of some sort? The British Museum is just down the street. What are they after? The Rosetta Stone? No, too large, too heavy. Maybe the Lewis Chessmen. Will the men leave now (singly, of course)? Go in separate directions, one of them preparing to create a distraction, maybe detonate an explosive with the touch of a button: SEND? Who are they working for?

My husband returns from the restroom before I’ve figured out how they’ll fence the theft. I tell him the story I’ve concocted in his absence. We laugh. Then we pay the bill and walk out into the May morning, heading for the Russell Square tube station. I take my husband’s hand, my eyes alert for a new cast of characters.

Writers see stories in everything. A woman walking along, sobbing, amidst throngs of holiday shoppers (Was she just dumped in a love affair? Did her grandmother/sister/best friend die from a tragic illness/accident? Has she simply received one too many rejections from agents on her latestphoto-14 Girl on train MIND novel?).  Almost every situation suggests characters, a plot. The real-life couple on that HGTV show—ever notice how she shrinks from that hug he gives her? How she doesn’t laugh when he’s trying to be funny? What’s the story behind that?  And the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York—the way it sort of buckles and bounces as you drive across it? Hmm. Corruption at high levels? Is the public’s safety hostage to a bevy of tough legislative players, each with his or her own secret hopes and vices?

My husband says it’s a trip being with me: Nothing occurs that is not part of some larger tale. It is funny, but in truth, it’s the only view I know. I believe the Bard nailed it when he wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Every moment is a beginning for “Once upon a time.”

People often ask, “Where do you get your story ideas?” Well, where do you not find stories? Personally, I’m curious about most things, but the top of the list is people. How they choose to present themselves, what they attempt to hide. Their desires, fears, loves, insecurities. And behind each of these, the big question: Why? As the National Enquirer is fond of reminding us, “Enquiring minds want to know.”

So, let this serve as fair warning. If I spot you in a café or a subway car, if our paths cross on an urban street or a country lane, you’ll likely become a character in a plot of my devising. But whether you’ll be the unlikely hero, time-traveling villain, defrauded heiress, or prophetic clown—well, that’s a mystery.

photo-142 Man sitting on cloud MIND