The Chrismas Archives

Shakespeare's Roasted Crabs

In Shakespeare's `Winter Song', he speaks of the `Roasted Crabs hissing in the bowl'. The Crabs were little bright red apples, which were grown for. their sharp taste when added to other foods, and the high pectin, which was used for preserving and jellying. Their chief use at Christmastide was as an ingredient for the Wassail Bowl. when roasted, they split open to reveal a fluffy whiteness; which spooned on to the spiced ale or cider was called `Lamb's wool'. Many ceremonies and traditions were observed. The wassailers, however poor, had to be welcomed in to the house no matter how grand To refuse them was refusing the good fortune they brought. (Christianity, as well as more ancient custom, also taught that this was the season to give alms to the poor for the cleansing of ones own life or soul.) A few verses were sung before admittance, then the following verses were full of well-wishing and blessings upon the household, ending with a request for alms, which were never refused or they took their good fortune away with them. This was a time of much superstition, and few would take the risk of losing their fortune!

Neither should they refuse to drink from the proffered bowl. The original wassail is said to have come from a much older custom, whereby enmity was broken, and peace signed by the drinking of the Peace Cup - an ale drink. The phrase `Wassail' comes from the Saxon, , `Wachs Heil', meaning `I give you health'. Here is an extract on a piece about the Wassail Bowl, followed by a Wassail song, which may even have been sung at Shakespeare's own front door - it would be certainly most unlikely that he did not know this famous old Wassail drinking song, which was sung by groups of maidens carrying around their bowl from house to house over the festive season.

The Boar's Head and the Wassail Bowl were the two most important accessories to Christmas in the olden times, and there are frequent allusions to the latter in the words of our early English poets. The phrase, `wassail' occurs in the oldest carol that has been handed down to us, and in extracts from Spenser, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson mention is made of the wassail Bowl, which shows that in their day, it continued to form a necessary portion of the festivities appertaining to the season. New Year's Eve and Twelfth Night were the occasions on which the Wassail Bowl was chiefly in requisition . . .

While the wealthier classes were enjoying themselves with copious draughts of `Lamb's wool' - as the beverage, composed of ale, nutmeg, sugar, toast and roasted crabs or apples, with which the bowl was filled, was styled - the poorer sort of people went from house to house with Wassail! Bowls adorned with ribbons, singing carols, and inviting those they visited to drink, in return for which, little presents of money were generally bestowed upon them.

A jolly Wassail Bowl
A Wassail of good ale,
Well fare the butler's soul,
That setteth this to sale -
Our jolly Wassail.

Good Dame, here at your door
Our Wassail we begin,
We are all maidens poor,
We now pray let us in,
With our Wassail.

Our Wassail we do fill
With apples and with spice,
Then grant us your good will,
To taste here once or twice
Of our Wassail

If any maidens be
Here dwelling in this house,
They kindly will agree
To take a full carouse
Of our Wassail.

But here they let us stand
All freezing in the cold;
Good Master, give command
To enter and be bold,
With our Wassail.