Nothing quite says it is the Christmas season like wassailing. Visiting friends and neighbors and singing carols speaks the season to me. Although door-to-door caroling was no longer common when I was a teenager, a group of my friends decided to do so anyway. Bringing a little bit of holiday cheer to my neighborhood with them became a favorite tradition. Walking about at night, enjoying the festive Christmas lights on the snowy trees and bushes, and singing carols was magical.
The word Wassail comes from the old Norse phrase ves heill.
Ves heill means “be in (good) health”. The toast of Wassail was brought to England by the Danes and spread quickly. It had become the Anglo Saxon waes hael by the time the Normans invaded in 1066. Toasts are statements made in honor of a person, group of people, or idea, followed by a drink. Another pre-Christian practice, driving out evil spirits, also became part of Wassail. These spirits might blight their crops by singing, shouting, and making noise in the fields and apple orchards also became part of Wassail. The villagers poured cider onto the ground to encourage bountiful crops. This practice continued in parts of England after converting to Christianity. Over time, the term wassail came to refer to the drink, the toast, and the practice of going Christmas caroling.
Historically, Wassail (the beverage) was an alcoholic drink made from hot mulled mead, hard cider, or ale. A typical version of Wassail is a drink called Lamb’s Wool. It is made from an ale whipped to a froth with floating roasted crab apples. Some of the recipes for Wassail include egg as well. Modern versions of Wassail can also be non-alcoholic, typically a hot spiced cider. Traditionally, Wassail was served from large communal bowls, often with floating pieces of toast in it, which is where the phrase to toast someone came from. Early versions of the Wassail bowl were communal cups passed around for each person to drink from. Later versions were more like a punch bowl with individual cups.
So how did wassail come to mean caroling??
In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the commoners would visit their lord at the start of the excellent year. He would wish them “Waes hael” (be well), and they would respond “Drinc hael” (drink and be healthy). By the Middle Ages, the term wassail was applied to a practice during the Christmas season when peasants could visit the homes of their feudal overlords.
When visiting them, they would offer food, drink, and blessings during this time. This evolved into a tradition where the poor would go visit wealthy houses. In some cases, they brought empty cups to be filled with Wassail. In others, they brought bowls of hot Wassail with them to offer to the houses in exchange for gifts, often of money. The revelers would sing songs to the house owners and wish them continued wealth and health in the coming year.
Wassailing throughout the years.
By King Henry VIII’s time in the 16th Century, the practice of singing songs and drinking was a prevalent way to celebrate Christmas. Wassail became a popular tradition for wishing each other a Happy Christmas and new year. Because of the large amounts of alcohol that were often imbibed by the revelers, wassailing was frequently a rowdy tradition. In fact, Puritans frowned on the practice so much that they banned it during the 1640s and 1650s. After the monarchy in England was restored in 1660, many Puritans left England for America.There they suppressed many of the typical English traditions in the northern colonies. The wassail traditions, however, continued to thrive in the southern colonies.
By the Victorian era,Wassail lost much of the association with alcohol and gift-giving, although the idea of the wealthy giving gifts to the poor continued in England and Canada in the form of Boxing Day. Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, was when gifts or tips were given to servants and employees. Instead, the wassailing tradition of going door to door evolved into the practice of going to visit one’s neighbors singing Christmas carols. Christmas carols, as a result, became popular, and many of the Christmas carols we know now date back to the Victorian period. One of my favorite Christmas Carols, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” was published in this era.
We hope that you find the same magic in the music of the holiday this Christmas season, and to all our readers, we at the Research Gateway wish you good health in the new year. .
Other December Holidays
- Hanukkah: A Brief History of Hanukkah, (not always in December)
- The Dreidel: History and How to Play (not always in December)
- Saint Nicholas: Who was Santa Claus (December 6th)
- Saint Lucia’s Day (December 13th)
- Yuletide: Midwinter Yule
- The History of the Yule Log
- Christmas Tinsel: The Legend of the Christmas Spider
- The Christmas Tree: Olde Tannenbaum
- Christmas Stockings: A Brief History
- This History of Fruitcake (National Fruitcake Day – US – December 27th)