When does the holiday season officially start? Is it the second the turkey hits room temperature? The moment Walmart’s doors open to throngs of Black Friday bargain hunters? The first shake of silver bells on the radio?
For Denton, there’s no question that it’s the first Friday of December, marked by the Holiday Lighting Festival. From the rooftops, the Square resembles a Christmas Village. The lights surrounding the courthouse, trees, and businesses give off a warm glow. A gathering of musicians serenade the crowd with holiday tunes as they parade through the streets or perform on stage. And how can one forget the piéce de résistance: a colossal tree, seemingly wearing more bulbs than pine needles? But the night provides more than just an opportunity to gawk at the lights. For Dentonites, one tradition pits business against business and stomach against will.
For this is also Wassail Weekend.
Friends, allow me to take an aside to educate the currently confused (just as I once was myself). Wassail (pronounced wah-sull) is a hot apple cider, traditionally loaded with wintry spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves – and served in a bowl with floating apples and oranges. Even lemons and cranberries can be thrown in the mix.
A vendor serves up a cup of wassail. (Photo by Ed Steele Photography)
When do you drink wassail? When you go wassailing, of course! The tradition dates back 500 years, to Germany – or England, depending on who you talk to. Let’s compromise and just say northern Europe. Carolers would travel door-to-door, greeted by neighbors and friends with wassail to keep them warm. The word “wassail” comes from the Old English phrase “Wass heil!” which means “Good fortune!” or “Be merry!”
In Denton, the businesses compete for a crown and title: the King/Queen of Wassail. Wassailers travel to as many stops as possible and vote on their favorites on paper or online.
Each business has a unique twist on the drink. Atomic Candy’s takes inspiration from Harry Potter’s butterbeer. Agua Dulce makes a ponche de vida with hibiscus flowers and Mexican Hawthorne apples. Dark Age Tattoo Studio throws a piece of fruit into everyone’s cup. Some integrate Red Hots and even maple syrup.
Bringing Puerto Rico to Denton
My personal wassail quest led me to question others who came before me. A survey of wassail makers on the Square reveals some common advice for the newbie: have patience (First People’s Jewelers’ Kelsi Sadberry); experiment (Atomic Candy’s Tim Loyd and Agua Dulce Mexican Kitchen’s Ryann Reid); don’t go overboard (Eastside’s John Williams); and use fresh ingredients (West Oak Coffee Bar’s Abi Stevens).
The Denton Main Street Association estimates last year’s event had 3,000 tasters out of the 15,000 attending the festival. Christine Gossett, event coordinator for the Denton Main Street Association, says the attendance is better represented in how many wassail cups were served.
“We had 10,000 sampling cups made last year,” Christine says.
In 2015, Palm Tree Boutique owner Colin Grunewald, new to Denton and wassail, thought 1,000 cups would be enough. By the end of the night, he’d borrowed 1,000 more from neighboring businesses.
The businesses make from 25 to 50 gallons of wassail for the weekend and it never seems to be enough. Every year gains a new crop of wassailers but the old guard remains faithful. Some, Grunewald says, even bring their own designated mugs.
Brandi McDuff is a loyal wassailer, and she enjoys the challenge.
“My best year, I made it to 15 places,” she says proudly.
Much of Wassail Weekend’s success can be attributed to the breadth of people the Holiday Lighting Festival brings. But what is it about wassail that’s kept businesses competing for the crown since 1998? How does this Old European cider remain a staple in the land of vegans, hipsters, and sorority sisters? Would Fanta Friday have the same ring to it?
Dana Lodge, who won Queen of Wassail for the Discover Denton Welcome Center last year, says wassail taps into cultural threads that tie us together as Americans.
“It’s apple. There’s nothing more American. It makes you feel warm and fuzzy – takes you back home.”
However, Ben Esely, co-owner of the Bearded Monk, says it’s Denton’s “quirky vibe” that keeps the event alive.
“It’s not the drink, but the entire night. It could be Coca-Cola night and we’d all dress up like polar bears.”
Who can give us a definitive answer? Who is so enraptured by wassail that their cheers can be heard across the Square? The Town Crier.
Jackie Reed earns her namesake out of sheer power. Dressed in a fierce elf shirt, she’s the marketing muscle for the First People’s Jewelers team, calling out “Come get the wassail!” and “Best wassail ever!” for everyone to hear.
“Wassail makes people forget things in life at that moment,” she says.
“What Life Has Made You Forget”
Let’s go back to that Denton Live writer, crafting his own brand of wassail as the gentle breeze of the Puerto Rican hills blows behind him. The smell of cinnamon fills the house, from porch to backyard. Crispy fried tostones, made from the greenest plantains, cook on the stove, sharing a space with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas and pork) and wassail.
He tosses in the rest of his cider, and decides some more cloves may make it spicier. Adding in a monster-sized tamarind wouldn’t hurt, right?
The writer doesn’t think about his deadlines or the thousands of words he’ll have to write before the week is over. What matters are the spices, the laughter, and the stomach growls growing in intensity. What matters are the knowing glances the father gives the writer, a look that says, “Don’t worry, you’ll get it.”
And those moments are when wassail makes the most sense. Wassail helps people remember what life has made them forget. And whether that takes place in the glowing Denton Square in December or the sun-kissed Puerto Rican hills in March, the effect is medicinal – it takes you home just when you need it. Happy holidays, felicidades, and wass heil.