All Hail the Wassail
Most of you I’m sure, are familiar with the wassail song:
‘Love and joy come to you,
and to you your wassail to;
and God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.’
But if you’ve never given any thought to what the wassail is, who the wassailers were etc – read on.
The Grammar Bit
The word ‘Wassail’ is, of course, a noun. What’s more it’s a salutation (greeting) used to wish health to someone by the presentation of a cup of drink to said person. Wassail is also a festivity or revel with the drinking of liquor and wishing good health to others on festive occasions – usually Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night – the feast of Epiphany– 5thJanuary. Yet the traditionalists amongst followers of the tradition insist on ‘Old Twelvey’ – aka the 17thJanuary, as the correct date for wassail celebrations. As far as they’re concerned this is the correct date because it was the wassail date before the Gregorian calendar came along in 1752 and messed everything up.
According to Historic UK.com, Anglo Saxon tradition dictated that the lord of the manor should start each new year bhy greeting the assembled throng with the toast waes hael– meaning ‘be well’ or ‘be in good health’. The lord’s followers would reply ‘drink hael’ or ‘drink well’, thus beginning the new year with some liberal libations.
It’s quite possible that such celebrations went on for some years before Christianity began to spread throughout Britain from around 600 onwards.
What’s in the Wassail
The wassail’s ingredients varied depending where in the country you lived. But it tended to contain a warmed ale, wine or cider blended with spices, honey and maybe a couple of eggs. They served this unappealing (to me at least) drink in one huge bowl (the wassail bowl – obvs) and passed it from person to person accompanied by the traditional wassail greeting.
Types of Wassailing
Oh yes – there’s more than one way to wassail! Though both involve imbibing. There are in fact two distinct variations.
- Groups of merrymakers went from house to house with the wassail bowl singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. Though I can’t help but wonder if, by the time they’d imbibed from the wassail bowl a few times they might have been more troublemakers than merry makers?
- The second form of wassailing tends to be a country practice – in fruit growing regions in particular – where the wassail blesses the tress.
As with the ingredients of the wassail itself the form of such country celebrations vary. But common got to them all is a wassail King and Queen who lead the revellers in noisy procession through all the orchards. In each one, the wassailers gather around the biggest and best tree. Then, as a gift to the spirits, the Queen places a wassail-soaked piece of toast into its branches accompanied by such songs as:
“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”
The wassailers then move on to the next orchard, singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and making as much noise as possible to both waken the sleeping tree spirits, and to frighten off any evil demons lurking in the branches. Read more about the wassail here, on the British Food History website.
The ever-so-lovely Secret Garden in Swindon does a lovely wassail event – read more about that here. Find them on Facebook here.
And hear the wassail song here:
From wassailing to carolling
Let’s return now to the practice of house-wassailing. This drunken carry on (let’s not pretend) carried on in England right through the Middle Ages. The feudal lords of the manor used it to show seasonal goodwill to his serfs and other minions by giving money and food in exchange for the wassail song at the top of this post.
Over time this house-wassailing tradition morphed into what we now know as carolling – groups of people going from door-to-door singing Christmas carols.
Sounds like a cosy, benign activity doesn’t it? Indeed, that’s the common depiction of Christmas Carolling throughout popular culture – as seen in the images above. Yet take a look at the words of the popular refrain ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’. Quite early in the song starts making demands ‘now give us some figgy pudding’and soon resorts to actual threats: ‘and we won’t go until we’ve got some.’ And a merry Christmas to you too!