Now that we are well into the Celtic Spring Quarter – Imbolc or Oimelc – let’s linger a moment to consider this threshold. The season is named for lactating ewes, as it is also lambing season. This hopeful sign is not just a harbinger of spring, but welcome relief after going all the long, dark winter with no dairy in your diet.
Lambs are frequently associated with St Brigit, whose feast day is February 1, the beginning of Imbolc. As characters acting out an ancient drama, Brigit represents the fair maiden of spring who is pitted against the Cailleach, the old hag of winter. Though the hag sends a dragon against the maiden in these turbulent weather days, the maiden’s gentle lamb proves the stronger and springtime is ushered into the world once more.
Lambswool was the name of a popular drink during the dark days leading up to Imbolc. It was often enjoyed during Wassailing or “Apple Howling” as it was called in orchard country. “Wassail!” was a toast to your health; a wish for you to “Be Whole” or “Be Hail & Hearty.” The standard response was “Drinc Hail!” Wassailing was something you did – typically in community and almost always, out of doors.
“Apple Howling” is a specific wassailing for driving the evil spirits out of the orchard and invoking a blessing for fruitfulness. It often begins with a shotgun blast kicking off a “big hullabaloo” when everyone make as much noise as possible (this would be the “driving out the evil” bit). Then you’d be lifting a glass (or bowl) to an individual tree, selected to represent all of its kind, and wishing it a merry “Wassail!” Before anyone takes a drink for themselves, the first sip is splashed upon the apple tree.
Wassail also referred to the stuff in the cup or bowl you raise in toast. While recipes vary, the basic ingredients found in wassail are: mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar.
Which brings us back to a fine wassail concoction called Lambswool. This may be because it was served during the Celtic festival of La mas ubal, that is, ‘The Day of the Apple Fruit’; and being pronounced lamasool, it was corrupted to Lambs Wool. It may have also gotten the name from the fluffy appearance of the apple as it floats above the grog beneath.
In any case, it is never too late for a fine toast and so long as the days are chill and dark, there is nothing that can satisfy quite like a warm, spicy drink. Stop by the Celtic Ranch and you’ll find plenty of wooly warmth, both in the shop and in The Whiskey Snug. I always say, “We can warm you up on the inside and the outside!” Wassail, y’all!
Wrangler of Cultural Affairs