History of Wassailing

The History of Wassailing

Many people today have never heard of wassailing, although they might recognize the carol, “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green.” This song, which is still featured on Christmas albums and sung by carolers, opens with a verb that leaves many people scratching their heads, if they even stop to think about the words. What exactly is “wassailing?”

It gets worse. What was an action verb at first is a noun only a few lines later: “Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too.” Confusing as this song is to moderns, wassailing was once a major part of Christmas celebrations. Its history dates far back into the ancient past of England.

The word itself is obviously not modern English. It comes from the Old English phrase was hál (or waes hael), meaning “be in good health.” It is a salutary greeting that elicits the traditional reply drinc hael (“drink, and good health”).

At some point, this innocent greeting morphed into a drinking salute and spread across England. How and when this transformation occurred, however, is lost to legend. One famous story comes from the fifth century and was written down by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1135. It recounts how a Saxon noblewoman, Rowena, brought a goblet of spiced wine to King Vortigen during a magnificent feast. She bowed and offered him the cup, exclaiming “waes hail!” The king was enchanted by her beauty. He replied “drinc hail,” kissed her, took the cup, drained it, and shortly afterward married her.

The earliest written reference to wassail is in the epic poem Beowulf, probably composed in the eighth century.

“The rider sleepeth, the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.”

In these lines, wassail still appears as a salute, rather than a drink, although undoubtedly it would have been accompanied by revelry and drinking.

So at what point did wassailing become the activity it seems to be in the Christmas carol? Again, the answer is vague and convoluted. In Anglo-Saxon times, English farmers performed a ritual that became the forerunner to wassailing. During the long winter months, they would gather in their orchards and pour cider over the leafless trees. Supposedly, this libation protected the trees from evil spirits, ensuring they produced an abundance of fruit at the next harvest. As England became a Christianized nation, farmers began wassailing on the Twelfth Night of Christmas, asking the Infant Christ to bless the trees and grant them good fruit.

Wassailing eventually became the practice of going door-to-door with bowls of wassail, singing and sometimes expecting recompense. This tradition originated with peasants who would gather outside their lord’s house every winter. The lord would emerge with bowl of spiced wine and cry out, “Wassail!” The peasants would reply “drink hail,” and then proceed to the drinking. Occasionally this practice took an ominous turn if the feudal lord was unobliging. Crowds of angry, drunk peasants would demand payment and more wine, inflicting violence on unwilling noblemen.

By the English Renaissance, wassailing was still potentially volatile. Wassailers would wander about the streets, hauling bowls of alcoholic drink along with them and offering it to all they encountered. The season was a time for overturning customs. Poor wassailers expected a warm welcome at the houses of local rich people, where they feasted on the best food of the year. Similarly, students could play pranks on their teachers without fear of reprisal.

Not everyone found this disorder appealing. The Puritans discouraged wassailing in the New England colonies and banned it during the Puritan Parliament of the 1640’s and 1650’s in England. They saw the wild uproar as disgraceful, especially during a season intended to celebrate the birth of Christ and the foundation of the Christian religion.

This official attitude prevailed for a couple of centuries, although wassailers still thronged the streets every winter. In the nineteenth century, wassailing took on a more innocent form. Authors like Washington Irving in America and Charles Dickens in England portrayed it as a domestic event. In their writing, families gathered around the wassail bowl to toast the holiday season with pleasant Christmas cheer.

So what is the drink wassail? Well, that also is a complicated question. Wassail has evolved in many ways since the days of Vortigen and Rowena. In Anglo-Saxon England, it was usually mulled wine, and this form has remained popular over the centuries. Eventually, the revelers began to opt for a rich punch of ale or cider, often spiked with rum or sherry.

A popular form of wassail even received its own name: Lamb’s Wool. The drink was usually ale-based, thickened with cream, sweetened with sugar, and spiced with nutmeg. Bits of bread and eggs would float in the warm liquid, along with “crabs.” Crabs were hot, roasted crab apples that exploded in the punch, releasing their pulp in hissing, frothy globs. The crabs resembled balls of lamb’s wool, giving this unusual punch its name.

Wassail traditionally was served in massive bowls. The rich often had great silver basins that emerged for this special occasion every year. They would parade the drink around the room, accompanied by triumphant carols, before serving the drink. Jesus College of Oxford University has one such silver vessel that holds 10 gallons .

Several wassail-like drinks survive today. In the United States, the creamy Lamb’s Wool concoction became a simpler drink with the familiar name of “egg nog.” Wassail also lingers in the punch bowl featured at many Christmas parties. Of course, mulled wine is still commonly served during the Christmas season, especially in the British isles.

Although wassailing has faded into the annals of history, its descendant, caroling, is still popular. The groups of merrymakers who go door-to-door, rubbing their hands for warmth and singing lustily, are channeling a less tipsy version of ancient wassailing. Caroling is an apt reminder that the Christmas traditions of modern times have roots that reach back centuries into the past.

And it is in the carols that people today still hear the term wassailing:

“Wassail, wassail, all over the town

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree

With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.”