One ancient Christmas custom is the wassail, which refers to the toast, the practice and the drink. The toast comes from the Middle English wæs hæl meaning ‘be healthy’ or, as we still say, ‘good health’ and the response was drinc hæl – ‘drink healthy’. The word hæl remains in modern English as ‘hale’ meaning ‘well’, as in ‘hale and hearty’.
|The Wassail Bowl|
A communal drinking bowl, the wassail bowl, would be held by one person who would toast his neighbour ‘wæs hæl’ and when the response ‘drinc hæl’ came, the bowl would be passed with a kiss, drunk from and the toast repeated to the next in the company. The bowl would be filled with Lambs Wool, a drink made from sweetened ale or cider spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger, into which roasted apples were added, (In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck says, “And sometimes lurk I in a gossip's bowl, In very likeness of a roasted crab.”)
|Wassailing the Orchard|
In southern counties, mulled cider was used, and the wassailers would visit the cider apple and other fruit tree orchards and sing the trees awake, and scare off the evil spirits, ensuring a good harvest in the following year. The details of the ceremony differed from village to village and from county to county, but the central elements of the procession, the singing, the wassail drinking and decking the trees with slices of toast soaked in the bowl (to attract Robins), were common to most. Another practice was ‘rough music’ which, as the name suggests, was a raucous performance on drums, trumpets and other instruments, with kettles and pans being rattled and banged, accompanied by whistles and roars, all meant to scare away unwanted influences and spirits.
|Wassailing in the Town|
In other areas, the wassailers would go from house to house, singing and collecting alms, and either offering people a drink from the bowl or taking an empty bowl, expecting it to be filled. There were a great many old wassailing songs, sung to ancient tunes, with some very poetic and others mere doggerel but all dating far back in time. Perhaps the most famous is the Gloucestershire Wassail,
“Wassail, wassail, all over the town,Our toast it is white, our ale it is brown;Our bowl it is made of the mapling [or rosemary] tree,With the wassailing bowl we will drink unto thee.”
|The Gloucestershire Wassail|
Another famous wassail, often sung by children, is;
“Here we come a wassailing,Among the leaves so green,Here we come a wandering,So fair to be seen.”
The poet Robert Herrick wrote a short verse, Christmas Eve an other ceremonie,
“Wassaile the Trees, that they may beareYou many a Plum, and many a Peare:For more or lesse fruits they will bring,As you doe give them Wassailing.”
The wassail songs are a strange combination of the traditional drinking songs and more religious elements, brought together in an unusual and unexpected mix.
Wassailing began on Christmas Eve and could continue to Twelfth Night, when the celebrations ended with more spiced ale and special spiced cakes, hence the expression ‘Cakes and Ale.’ If you fancy trying a wassail bowl of your own, this is a recipe from the 1870s:
“Heat in a saucepan a pint of Burton ale, with half a pound of sugar, a grated nutmeg, and half an ounce of grated ginger; after it has just boiled up, add a quart more ale, four glasses of golden sherry, and a couple of ounces of lump sugar that has been rubbed over the outside of a lemon. Add also a few thin slices of lemon. Make the whole mixture hot without boiling it, and add half a dozen roasted apples that have had the cores stamped out and cut, but that have not been peeled.”
Wassailing fell from favour during the Victorian age and was replaced by the similar custom of carolling. It is said that the pub name The Pig and Whistle comes from a corruption of Peg and Wassail, in reference to the Peg tankards introduced in Saxon times.