Christmas in California : Learning to Wassail
I am the fourth generation of my family in Southern California. My great-grandmother, born in the gold rush town of Angel’s Camp, moved to what was then Ocean Park--now Santa Monica--100 years ago. She was a great celebrator, and I’m convinced that these passions must run in the genes because my grandmother, mother and I dearly love a party.
And, of course, the jolliest season for parties is Christmas.
For most of us in Southern California, Christmas is celebrated with a kind of wintry nostalgia for a shivery holiday in front of a crackling fire rare in this part of the world--forgetting that the first Noel was celebrated in a near-desert, with kings on camels, not reindeer, and a Babe swaddled in rags, not furs. In balmy Malibu, where my children grew up, Christmas was mantled with snow only in our imaginations, its setting a fairy-tale.
Wassail--an enormous punch bowl flavored with roasted lady apples and afloat with clouds of egg white on a sea of hot spiced ale, Madeira, and brandy--is the heart of our Christmas. For years, we’ve ladled up the steaming brew from our dime-store punch bowl on the afternoon of Christmas Eve for neighbors.
Neighbors are special. As different as people living a mile or two from us might be, we all have one crucial thing in common. We were drawn to live in this place.
With neighbors, a Christmas party has a spirit different from a party with friends. Neighbors share pleasures and problems no one else can share the same way.
When children are young, their friends are their neighbors--and their friends’ parents often turn into close friends.
Which is much of what I love about wassail. The children.
Crushed around my grandmother’s round maple table covered with a red felt cloth are the tinies who, standing on tiptoe, can barely see the heaps of peppermint canes, frosted cinnamon stars, gingerbread boys and girls (were there gingerbread girls pre-women’s lib? you bet!), maple sugar bon bons, aniseeded Springerle, iced Lebkuchen, candied orange and grapefruit peels, sugared grapes, savory bites of Cheddar, rolled slices of ham, red shells of pistachio nuts, radishes, raw green beans, chile-toasted pecans, and the fruitcake I always make and always end up eating myself through May.
And, of course, there’s a pitcher of warm cider, lightly spiced, for the young and the teetotalling. We must fill it half a dozen times.
Cruising the table past the little ones--when they’re not leaning against the back of the sofa schmoozing or deep in conversation beside the lighted tree--are their families and their neighbors. The din is lovely.
Our family’s custom of making wassail for the afternoon of Christmas Eve began in England. We’d gone to live abroad for a year and landed in an Elizabethan cottage in a village between Oxford and London. So that we wouldn’t go hungry, I’d brought along a number of my cookbooks.
The day before Christmas Eve, deep snow sparkled around us--the first white Christmas of my life! I suddenly wanted to share our joy.
After researching some cookbooks in the cottage’s library, I said to my husband: “Let’s invite the neighbors in for wassail.”
“What is it?”
“It’s an English Christmas drink from medieval times. Just think how complimented they’ll be to have American visitors keeping up their custom.”
Late the next afternoon, as the church bells rang out across the frozen fields, over from Medmenham House, from Duffields, from Pheasant’s Hill and Ferry Lane and the Marlow Road came our neighbors.
“Wassail!” I said, as I handed the first guest a steaming cup.
“Oh, thank you!” she said. “What is it?”
I saw my husband trying not to laugh.
But everyone loved it as they downed their Christmas cake and Melting Moments and treacle toffee I’d made, and filled cup after cup after cup with cheer. I described the wassail tradition of saluting the guest with a cup, “Be whole,” and the expected response, “Drink hail.”
Ever after, neighbors have come for wassail. In Malibu where we lived, Franciscan brothers in the retreat that crowned the hill in our canyon invited everyone for a holiday potluck supper. This was the most neighborly Christmas party of all, since almost all of the 51 families in the neighborhood came.
Then, one year--as has just happened--there was a fire. More than half the houses in our canyon burned. Much of the retreat was lost too. But everyone pulled together. And grew closer.
By sheer luck, our house was spared. More than ever that Christmas we wanted to gather our neighbors. The one thing everyone was saying was, “Well, at least, we have one another.”
“What does wassail mean?” someone asked me.
“Be whole,” I said. That’s what neighbors help us to be.
Here, in the mountains above Palm Springs, December can be snowy or not--our wassail reminiscent of our English Christmas or not--according to Mother Nature’s mood. Snow-white or au naturel , wassail is a thread running through our lives, tying our family and our neighbors--even as they change--to a village far away in time and space. How it sustains us, sharing the bright and shiny afternoon with neighbors. My great-grandmother and my grandmother would have loved it.
As for the cup itself, we never measure--especially for later batches--and each year the brew has its own character. Here is how to begin your own tradition.
Scant 1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
12 whole cloves
12 allspice berries
4 cups granulated sugar
2 quarts ale
2 (750-ml) bottles Madeira
1 cup brandy
12 eggs at room temperature, separated
Small dash salt
12 to 24 whole Baked Lady Apples, optional
Fill punch bowl with boiling water to warm.
In nonreactive soup pot, bring 2 cups water, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, coriander, cloves and allspice to boil. Turn heat to low and simmer 10 minutes. Add sugar, turn heat to medium-high and stir until sugar dissolves. Blend in ale, Madeira and brandy and heat until just about to simmering--do not boil.
In small mixing bowl, beat egg yolks until thick. In emptied punch bowl (if silver, use mixing bowl instead), beat egg whites with salt until soft peaks hold when beaters are lifted. Add yolks to whites and fold together with large rubber spatula.
Slowly pour piping hot spirits over eggs. Add apples and ladle up hot into punch cups. Makes about 32 (5-ounce) servings.
Each serving contains about:
197 calories; 38 mg sodium; 80 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 0.03 gram fiber.
The number of these diminutive apples you’ll plop in your bowl depends upon the size of the bowl and how fond you are of baked apples. Few will want an apple in their punch cup--awkward to eat--but offer a spoon for those who do. We bake lots because spicy Wassailed apples are delightful nibbling on Christmas Day. If you don’t make wassail but see lady apples at the market, bake these sugary spicy sweets for Christmas breakfast and pass a pitcher of cream or bowl of creme fraiche.
BAKED LADY APPLES
12 uncored unstemmed lady apples
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Arrange apples in pie dish. Add water and sprinkle sugar and cinnamon over apples. Bake in middle of 350-degree oven. After 30 minutes, use bulb baster to baste apples with syrup. Bake until apples are tender--don’t bake to mush--about 45 minutes. Spoon thick syrup over sugary apples, then cool. Makes 6 servings.
Each serving contains about:
119 calories; trace sodium; trace cholesterol; trace fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; trace protein; 0.71 grams fiber.