Get ready for some wassailing

By Shelly Detwiler, berry farmer and dietician 

My memories of punch are either of pale pastel sherbet blobs floating in a sparkling party punch or that of my historic college years when my roommates made punch in our bathtub. The vessel of choice back in the day was filled with bottles and bottles of the cheapest alcohol, red fruit punch and if your budget allowed it, sliced fruit. Thank goodness today that same potion is now being served from Gatorade drink dispensers, which sounds a little more Health Department friendly. No matter your memories of punch, the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s contain the biggest partying season there is, and no gathering is complete without a signature beverage. Whether served from a punch bowl or a cocktail glass, today’s punch brings the festive season to the jolliest of the jolliest. 

Punch served either high test or regular has been a main attraction at dances, weddings, birthdays, parties of any kind, but especially Christmas for generations. Through the years, punch has been quite the jet setter, long before there were jets. The word punch is believed to date back to 1600 British India. There was this Hindu drink called “Paantch” made up of five ingredients of alcohol, lemon, sugar, water, and spices. British servicemen and traders enjoyed this when they were unable to get their familiar “drink.” It was a great way to mask some bad tasting, inferior alcohol. Punch then travelled the ocean blue back to England where it was most commonly referred to as a “wassail” type drink consisting of wine or brandy along with fruit and juice. 

By the mid 1600s, traders once again influenced local punch with the introduction of Jamaican Rum. Tales of wassail went from private social gatherings of communal cup sharing to punch houses that popped up all over Britain. The writings of Charles Dickens took gatherings and caroling with wassail to new levels during Victorian times. Wassailing became a verb when punch took to the local streets. Country gatherings of farmers and country folk went wassailing into barns, orchards, and fields to raise their cups for a new year of good harvests and increased livestock fertility. Traditions of goodwill wassailing crossed the pond with the Pilgrims and holiday wassail-like drinks including egg nog became popular at gatherings. 

Although today, wassailing is mostly celebrated when reliving old English days, the tradition remains in a few of the farming wassailing in certain parts of England. Fast forward to 1932 when new meaning came to the word punch when newcomer Hawaiian Punch received its original patent and entered the market as an ice cream syrup. In 1962, “Punchy” debuted and Hawaiian Punch became an instant sensation. There have been many acquisitions, flavor changes and even a Punchy makeover leading to Hawaiian Punch as we know it today with 12 flavors found in most every U.S. beverage outlet today. 

There are so many concoctions when it comes to punch today. Most are less than 10 ingredients and can be chosen based on flavors, colors, temps, frozen or on the rocks to create a family friendly mocktail or a spiked, boozy cocktail. Edging glasses with edible sparkling glitter or sprinkles takes the presentation up just an extra notch. This holiday season, enjoy a festive sip and a very merry Christmas and New Year. 

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;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.

Eat well and Healthy



Wassailing is an ancient English custom, part of the feasts and revelry of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, which have been revived in Colonial Williamsburg. The master of the English household drank to the health of those present with a bowl of spiced ale, and each in turn after him passed the bowl along and repeated the Saxon phrase “Wass hael,” which means “be whole” or “be well.”

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