The Secret Cold War History of a Ruined Long Island Estate

Andrew Lenoir
Andrew Lenoir

Deep in the Muttontown Preserve of East Norwich, New York, off a series of winding trails, lies a graffitied staircase to nowhere. It’s one of just a few crumbling structures nearly swallowed by the woods—all that’s left of the Knollwood estate, a once-grand neoclassical mansion built starting in 1906 for Wall Street tycoon Charles Hudson.

Although historians call the place Knollwood, locals know it as King Zog’s Castle. The king in question is Zog I of Albania, owner-in-absentia of the estate for several years in the 1950s. While King Zog I purchased the mansion in 1951, he never lived there. In fact, he probably never even visited. His story is one of Cold War intrigue, failed CIA operations, and a lingering, unresolved exile.

A photograph of a staircase in the ruined former estate of King Zog I of Albania
Andrew Lenoir

When Ahmed Zogolli, the boy who would become King Zog, was born in 1895, there was no Albanian throne—there wasn’t even an Albania. The mountainous Balkan region was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, although order was largely maintained through a feudal system of competing familial warlords. Zogolli was not supposed to inherit his father’s post as the chieftain of his powerful mountain clan—he was the only son of his father's second marriage, and his older half-brother from his father's first marriage had been groomed to take over. But Zogolli's mother managed to convince the clan's elders to pass over her husband’s first-born heir in favor of her own offspring. Ambitious as her son would later become, the future king’s mother acted as chief until he reached maturity. Meanwhile, Zogolli was raised among the ruling class in Istanbul, reading about Napoleon and aspiring to a life beyond Turkish bureaucracy.

Over the next few years, he rose slowly but steadily through the ranks. In 1912, Albania declared independence, but after a brief monarchy, the country was consumed by the fighting of World War I. Zogolli proved himself a popular military commander under the Austro-Hungarians, and when a democratic Albanian government formed in 1920, he was appointed Minister of the Interior. Within a few years, he had become Prime Minister, shortening his name to Zogu. As he continued to consolidate his power, Zogu maintained control over his feudal chieftains with displays of drinking and gift-giving. But he also had harsher methods, once pulling a gun on a drunken chauffeur and telling him, “Drive more slowly or you die.”

Zogu became president in 1925, but three years later he declared the Albanian democratic experiment a failure: A republic was too much all at once for “backward” people used to hereditary hierarchies, he claimed. Instead, he offered himself as the country’s first nationalist monarch—King Zog (dropping the u), or “King Bird,” an allusion to Albanians’ self-identification as “Sons of the Eagle.” Six days of celebration followed, during which thousands of prisoners were pardoned, state employees received bonuses of a month's salary, and every shop and cafe displayed his picture (failure to do so meant a fine). Accounts of his 11-year-reign are mixed; historians note his love of luxury despite an impoverished population, but also his early efforts to spread literacy and electricity. “Zog is clever enough, but no hero, and he loves intrigue,” was the assessment of Benito Mussolini, according to the English explorer and writer Rosita Forbes.

The leader of Fascist Italy would also be the one to end Zog’s reign. When Italy invaded in 1939, Zog and his wife Geraldine fled with their newborn son, the crown prince Leka, waiting out World War II first in Greece and England before eventually landing in Egypt as a guest of that nation's King Farouk, where they soon settled into a villa in Alexandria.

After the war, the royal family flew to New York, arriving in America for the first time on July 26, 1951. The New York Times reported that Zog’s trip was strictly a pleasure visit, but recently declassified CIA files reveal there was more to the story. While newspapers focused on his social engagements, the king’s most important meetings were secret ones. A few weeks after his arrival, Zog had the first of three meetings with U.S. intelligence services.

A black and white photo of King Zog of Albania at an unknown date.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The deposed king had chosen his arrival shrewdly. Since 1944, Enver Hoxha and his USSR-backed Party of Labor had held control of the Albanian government. With the Iron Curtain closing and Cold War alliances starting to form, the United States was extremely interested in replacing the Albanian government as quickly and quietly as possible. Operation Valuable Fiend, launched in 1949, sought to do just that, serving as the first clandestine U.S. operation of the Cold War.

It wasn't the CIA's first effort in Albania: A few months before they started Operation Valuable Fiend, the CIA also began funding the National Committee for a Free Albania (NCFA), a United States-based group consisting of both pro-democracy and pro-monarchist politicians in exile. But the NCFA got off to a rocky start—its first chairman, the moderate Midhat Frashëri, died of a sudden heart attack within months of his appointment amid suspicions of Soviet foul play.

After that, Operation Valuable Fiend became the CIA’s top priority. So when King Zog arrived, presenting himself as the ultimate Albanian insider, Operation Commander Col. Gratian Yatsevitch—a Ukrainian immigrant turned U.S. intelligence officer—seized the opportunity to ask him some questions. First off, what was the best way to start a revolution in Albania?

“I’ve given the matter a lot of thought,” the king said, smoking cigarette after cigarette as he laid out his vision through an interpreter. He proposed personally selecting a small infiltration team of his best men to perform reconnaissance and rally any remaining Albanian monarchists. Meanwhile, the Americans and the king’s personal staff would train 10,000 Albanian rebels. Following a few targeted assassinations, Zog himself, the NCFA, and any other Albanian exile groups eager to join the fight would lead an invasion.

“At this point,” Zog said, “I will invite the UN to send representatives to ensure that formation of the new Albanian government is in accordance with democratic principles.” The king promised he had no pretensions of reinstating his regime, and the CIA documents note that he seemed frank and sincere. Still, the document notes, “it is very difficult if not impossible for a former monarch to divorce himself entirely from visions of returning to his kingdom.”

Two meetings later, at the beginning of September 1951, Yatsevitch confirmed that the U.S. government wanted to try Zog’s plan. But before returning to his Alexandria villa to await further instructions, the king decided to acquire an American pied a terre. “A bucket of diamonds and rubies was reliably reported yesterday to have been paid for an outstanding property in the Muttontown estate section of Syosset,” The New York Times reported on September 19, 1951, calling it “a deal that will bring a former member of European royalty to Long Island as a farmer resident.”

The Times was half-correct in its assertion that Zog aspired to be a “farmer resident.” He was particularly taken with Knollwood’s extensive dairy and capacity to house a thousand chickens. But Zog’s hopes ran higher than poultry: Owning an American residence meant that Zog and his family would have an easier time immigrating to the United States, which was an implicit component of his understanding with the government. If he could not be king in Albania, Zog planned to live like an aristocratic landowner in America. Once the paperwork on Knollwood was signed, he began looking into the possibility of bringing over whole families of servants with him to America to serve as the foundation for a court of over 100 people.

A photo of a monument to King Zog of Albania in a main square of the capital.
A monument to King Zog in Albania's capital.

In early May 1952, with Zog back in Egypt, a group of Albanian rebels handpicked by him from his personal guard and codenamed Apple Team crossed over the Albanian border. As Yatsevitch wrote in early June of that year, “There is a basis of hope that this Apple Tree will bear a rich harvest of bitter fruit for BGGYPSY [a codeword for Communist] palates.” But that never happened. Although the details are still unclear, sometime in the early hours of June 29, Apple Team was compromised.

In a 1954 letter, King Zog claimed he had personally instructed Apple Team to make contact with his old royalist allies, the Lleshi family. On June 29, as Apple Team members drank toasts to the king’s health, the Lleshi house was raided by a Sigurimi task force—the special forces of the Albanian communists.

Zog later claimed the once-loyal Lleshis had been bought off, their patriarch Haxhi Lleshi bribed with the offer of a high post in the Albanian government. As it happened, Haxhi Lleshi became presidium of the National Assembly the next year. Whatever the reason, by the end of June 1952, the Albanian forces had Apple Team’s men, weapons, radios, plans, and codebooks—and the CIA had no idea.

The Sigurimi first made contact with the Americans using the captured agents on July 3. There were some initial telegraphing errors that might have been a member of Apple Team signaling that something was wrong, but the Americans didn’t notice. It was only in November, when the Sigurimi tried to steal more supplies and capture more prisoners by claiming Apple Team’s radio operator was hurt, that the CIA began to suspect that something was wrong.

The now-suspicious CIA went to Zog, asking him for help in confirming who they were actually speaking to in their communications with Apple Team. Via radio contact from Alexandria, Zog told the CIA to ask team member Zenel Shehi, “Do you remember in whose hands you left your silver cuff links before your departure?”

The answer was Queen Geraldine, Zog’s wife. Or, it should have been. Shehi had been the Queen’s bodyguard since they entered exile in 1939 and the two remained close—so much that they exchanged keepsakes. Shehi should have known the answer immediately, as Zog had even discussed it with him in person before Apple Team left Alexandria. Instead, though, the operator answered: “The silver cuff links are in our suitcases … Don’t bother us unnecessarily.”

Somehow, Zog was convinced that Shehi had simply become confused. Maybe the former "King Bird" was distracted by his failing health and all that was happening in Egypt, where King Farouk, Zog’s friend and benefactor, was overthrown around the same time. By 1953, Egypt had become a democracy, and Zog’s Alexandria villa quickly became a luxurious prison.

Even worse, after a year of insisting he was immune to property tax, Zog was forced to pay $3000 in back taxes to New York's Nassau County to keep Knollwood off the auction block.

If Zog was ever going to move to America, this would have been the time. But he didn’t. In addition to wanting to bring 115 Albanians along with him, there was the problem of what kind of visa was appropriate for royalty. Worried that being accepted as a “refugee” or an official “emigrant” might damage his claim to the Albanian throne, Zog refused to accept anything less than an official invitation and sponsorship. According to Jason Tomes’s biography of the monarch, King Zog: Self Made Monarch of Albania, Zog’s emigration was also delayed because the U.S. never agreed to take more than 35 Albanians.

But on September 22, 1953, after a direct petition from CIA Director Allan Dulles, the U.S. State Department finally instructed their Alexandrian consulate that Zog and his entourage were to be allowed into the United States without visas. Sadly for him, the king didn't leave the country in time. Four days later, the king’s villa was raided by Egyptian authorities, Zog was arrested, and a large sum of his gold reserves were seized. According to Egyptian officials, the monarch had failed to declare his assets or pay any taxes during his arrival and stay in their country. Although there were some suspicions of Soviet involvement, assistance did not come from the U.S. Dulles wrote on October 2, “some steps [must] be taken to ease the possibility of causing embarrassment to the U.S. Government.” Things got worse when the reality of Valuable Fiend’s failure became obvious.

A photograph of a fountain in the ruined former estate of King Zog I of Albania
Andrew Lenoir

After months of stealing supplies and spreading misinformation, the communists impersonating Apple Team were tired of playing around. (The location of the real Apple Team members during this time is unknown, although they were likely in prison.) On the night of October 23, after sending a series of desperate messages, the communists lured a CIA supply plane into a trap—opening fire with anti-aircraft guns when it arrived at the predetermined drop point. The pilots barely managed to crash-land on the Greek side of the border.

Having revealed their hand, the Albanians knew they had used up Apple Team’s usefulness. Shortly afterwards, the Albanian government announced the capture of all six American-backed agents and began a highly publicized trial in April 1954. Prosecutors made sure to drag Zog through the mud in the process—claiming the king had betrayed his country to the Americans—before all members of Apple Team were publicly executed.

With Apple Team dead, Operation Valuable Fiend in shambles, and Zog on trial in Egypt, the CIA decided to “let the dust settle.” There was a brief spark of hope at the end of 1953, when an agent told the king to burn all CIA documents and promised to have the royals out of Egypt the next month, but the extraction never came. Instead, when Zog was finally allowed to leave Egypt in July of 1955 after paying various fines and arrears, he and his family fled to France—by then, the king was too ill with stomach ulcers for a transatlantic voyage. That was when Zog finally sold the Knollwood Estate in New York.

His throne a lost cause, the ex-ruler also gave up on Albania. The feeling, it seems, was mutual. In 1957, The New York Times wrote of the widespread belief among the Albanian population that “the United States is plotting to return King Zog to the throne and restore a feudal system of serfdom" [PDF]. Whether it was his own doing or an after-effect of CIA meddling and Communist propaganda, Zog was seen as just another autocrat interested in his own power and not the people.

In 1959, the same year The New York Times ran an article announcing the auction of the Albanian crown jewels "to be sold to assist the dependents of King Zog I" [PDF], the new owner of the Knollwood Estate, mining magnate Lansdell Christie, had the mansion torn down. By then, it had lain vacant so long it was deemed unsafe, although local legend has it that ransacking by treasure-hunters contributed to its decay.

Oyster Bay town historian John Hammond says that piece of local lore is unlikely: Although the Times’s report that Zog purportedly purchased Knollwood with "a bucket of rubies" might have given some people ideas, in his estimation the "treasure hunting" refers to a far more common kind of vandalism—stealing scrap metal. Hammond’s certain the only "treasure" was Knollwood’s fixtures: its copper gutters, downspouts, and wiring, which proved too tempting for trespassers.

Rumor of a great treasure seems like the kind of thing Zog would have liked, had he lived to see it. The deposed king outlasted Knollwood by only two years, dying in Paris in 1961 [PDF]. Queen Geraldine, nearly 20 years his junior, died in 2002.

But Zog has seen a kind of resurrection in Albania since his death. In 2012, his remains were exhumed and reburied at the Royal Mausoleum in Tirana, the country’s capital, as part of the country’s centennial celebrations. Greeted by a crowd of more than 3000, his place in his homeland has become more certain, whatever his role in the Cold War. He is, as Prime Minister Sali Berisha chose to remember him, the "illustrious figure who laid the foundations of the Albanian state." And on Long Island, the ruins of his estate remain as silent testimony to an odd interlude in the early Cold War.

Additional Sources: Operation Valuable Fiend; King Zog: Self Made Monarch of Albania; CIA documents

15 Fascinating Facts About Schindler’s List

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.

1. The story was relayed to author Thomas Keneally in a Beverly Hills leather goods shop.

In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.

Page gave Keneally photocopies of documents related to Schindler, including speeches, firsthand accounts, testimonies, and the actual list of names of the people he saved. It inspired Keneally to write the book Schindler’s Ark, on which the movie is based. Page (whose real name was Poldek Pfefferberg) ended up becoming a consultant on the film.

2. Keneally wasn't the first person Leopold Page told about Oskar Schindler.

The film rights to Page’s story were actually first purchased by MGM for $50,000 in the 1960s after Page had similarly ambushed the wife of film producer Marvin Gosch at his leather shop. Mrs. Gosch told the story to her husband, who agreed to produce a film version, even going so far as hiring Casablanca co-screenwriter Howard Koch to write the script. Koch and Gosch began interviewing Schindler Jews in and around the Los Angeles area, and even Schindler himself, before the project stalled, leaving the story unknown to the public at large.

3. Schindler made more than one list.

Liam Neeson, Agnieszka Krukówna, Krzysztof Luft, Friedrich von Thun, and Marta Bizon in Schindler's List (1993)
Universal Pictures

Seven lists in all were made by Oskar Schindler and his associates during the war, while four are known to still exist. Two are at the Yad Vashem in Israel, one is at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and one privately owned list was unsuccessfully auctioned off via eBay in 2013.

The movie refers to the first two lists created in 1944, otherwise known as “The Lists of Life.” The five subsequent lists were updates to the first two versions, which included the names of more than 1000 Jews who Schindler saved by recruiting them to work in his factory.

4. Steven Spielberg first learned of Schindler in the early 1980s.

Former MCA/Universal president Sid Sheinberg, a father figure to Spielberg, gave the director Keneally’s book when it was first published in 1982, to which Spielberg allegedly replied, “It’ll make a helluva story. Is it true?”

Eventually the studio bought the rights to the book, and when Page met with Spielberg to discuss the story, the director promised the Holocaust survivor that he would make the film adaptation within 10 years. The project languished for over a decade because Spielberg was reluctant to take on such serious subject matter. Spielberg’s hesitation actually stopped Hollywood veteran Billy Wilder from making Schindler’s List his final film. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Keneally’s book, but Spielberg and MCA/Universal scooped them up before he could.

5. Spielberg refused to accept a salary for making the movie.

Though Spielberg is already an extremely wealthy man as a result of the many big-budget movies that have made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he decided that a story as important as Schindler’s List shouldn’t be made with an eye toward financial reward. The director relinquished his salary for the movie and any proceeds he would stand to make in perpetuity, calling any such personal gains “blood money.” Instead, Spielberg used the film’s profits to found the USC Shoah Foundation, which was established in 1994 to honor and remember the survivors of the Holocaust by collecting personal recollections and audio visual interviews.

6. Before Spielberg agreed to make the movie, he tried to get other directors to make it.

Part of Spielberg’s reluctance to make Schindler's List was that he didn’t feel that he was prepared or mature enough to tackle a film about the Holocaust. So he tried to recruit other directors to make the film. He first approached director Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own mother was killed in Auschwitz. Polanski declined, but would go on to make his own film about the Holocaust, The Pianist, which earned him a Best Director Oscar in 2003. Spielberg then offered the movie to director Sydney Pollack, who also passed.

The job was then offered to legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who accepted. Scorsese was set to put the film into production when Spielberg had an epiphany on the set of the revisionist Peter Pan story Hook and realized that he was finally prepared to make Schindler’s List. To make up for the change of heart, Spielberg traded Scorsese the rights to a movie he’d been developing that Scorsese would make into his next film: the remake of Cape Fear.

7. The movie was a gamble for Universal, so they made Spielberg a dino-sized deal.

When Spielberg finally decided to make Schindler’s List, it had taken him so long that Sheinberg and Universal balked. The relatively low-budget $23 million three-hour black-and-white Holocaust movie was too much of a risk, so they asked Spielberg to make another project that had been brewing at the studio: Jurassic Park. Make the lucrative summer movie first, they said, and then he could go and make his passion project. Spielberg agreed, and both movies were released in 1993; Jurassic Park in June and Schindler’s List in December.

8. Spielberg didn't want a movie star with Hollywood clout to portray Schindler.

Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson auditioned for the role of Oskar Schindler, and actor Warren Beatty was far enough along in the process that he even made it as far as a script reading. But according to Spielberg, Beatty was dropped because, “Warren would have played it like Oskar Schindler through Warren Beatty.”

For the role, Spielberg cast then relatively unknown Irish actor Liam Neeson, whom the director had seen in a Broadway play called Anna Christie. “Liam was the closest in my experience of what Schindler was like,” Spielberg told The New York Times. “His charm, the way women love him, his strength. He actually looks a little bit like Schindler, the same height, although Schindler was a rotund man,” he said. “If I had made the movie in 1964, I would have cast Gert Frobe, the late German actor. That’s what he looked like.”

Besides having Neeson listen to recordings of Schindler, the director also told him to study the gestures of former Time Warner chairman Steven J. Ross, another of Spielberg’s mentors, and the man to whom he dedicated the film.

9. Spielberg did his own research.

In order to gain a more personal perspective on the film, Spielberg traveled to Poland before principal photography began to interview Holocaust survivors and visit the real-life locations that he planned to portray in the movie. While there, he visited the former Gestapo headquarters on Pomorska Street, Schindler’s actual apartment, and Amon Goeth’s villa.

Eventually the film shot on location for 92 days in Poland by recreating the Płaszów camp in a nearby abandoned rock quarry. The production was also allowed to shoot scenes outside the gates of Auschwitz.

10. The little girl in the red coat was real.

Promotional image for 25th anniversary rerelease of Schindler's List.
Universal Pictures

A symbol of innocence in the movie, the little girl in the red coat who appears during the liquidation of the ghetto in the movie was based on a real person. In the film, the little girl is played by actress Oliwia Dabrowska, who—at the age of three—promised Spielberg that she would not watch the film until she was 18 years old. She allegedly watched the movie when she was 11, breaking her promise, and spent years rejecting the experience. Later, she told the Daily Mail, “I realized I had been part of something I could be proud of. Spielberg was right: I had to grow up to watch the film.”

The actual girl in the red coat was named Roma Ligocka; a survivor of the Krakow ghetto, she was known amongst the Jews living there by her red winter coat. Ligocka, now a painter who lives in Germany, later wrote a biography about surviving the Holocaust called The Girl in the Red Coat.

11. The movie wasn't supposed to be in English.

For a better sense of reality, Spielberg originally wanted to shoot the movie completely in Polish and German using subtitles, but he eventually decided against it because he felt that it would take away from the urgency and importance of the images onscreen. According to Spielberg, “I wanted people to watch the images, not read the subtitles. There’s too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else.”

12. The studio didn't want the movie to be in black and white.

The only person at MCA/Universal who agreed with Spielberg and director of cinematography Janusz Kaminski’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white was Sheinberg. Everyone else lobbied against the idea, saying that it would stylize the Holocaust. Spielberg and Kaminski chose to shoot the film in a grimy, unstylish fashion and format inspired by German Expressionist and Italian Neorealist films. Also, according to Spielberg, “It’s entirely appropriate because I’ve only experienced the Holocaust through other people’s testimonies and through archival footage which is, of course, all in black and white.”

13. Spielberg's passion project paid off in Oscars.

Schindler’s List was the big winner at the 66th Academy Awards. The film won a total of seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director awards for Spielberg. Neeson and Ralph Fiennes were both nominated for their performances, and the film also received nods for Costume Design, Makeup, and Sound.

14. Schindler's List is technically a student film.

Steven Spielberg gives a speech
Nicholas Hunt, Getty Images

Thirty-three years after dropping out of college, Spielberg finally received a BA in Film and Video Production from his newly minted alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, in 2002. The director re-enrolled in secret, and gained his remaining credits by writing essays and submitting projects under a pseudonym. In order to pass a film course, he submitted Schindler’s List as his student project. Spielberg describes the time gap between leaving school and earning his degree as his “longest post-production schedule.”

15. Spielberg thinks the film may be even more important to watch today.

In honor of the film's 25th anniversary, it's currently back in theaters. But Spielberg believes that the film may be even more important for today's audiences to see. "I think this is maybe the most important time to re-release this film," the director said in a recent interview with Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News. Citing the spike in hate crimes targeting religious minorities since
2016, he said, "Hate's less parenthetical today, it's more a headline."

Additional Sources:
The Making of Schindler’s List: Behind the Scenes of an Epic Film, by Franciszek Palowski

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2015.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

iStock
iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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