Published: 18-03-2010, 09:07


The word “wassail” may sound unfamiliar to many Americans in spite of its long association with the CHRISTMAS SEASON in Great Britain (see also CHRISTMAS IN ENGLAND). There, the word has been used over the centuries to refer to a toast, a caroling custom, and a beverage (see also CHRISTMAS CAROL).

The English word “wassail” comes from the Middle English phrase wes heil, which means “be whole” or “be healthy.” The contemporary English word “hale,” meaning sound, healthy or vigorous, evolved from the second word in this phrase. Medieval Britons toasted each other with the cry, “Wes heil!” The proper response was “Drinc heil!” meaning “drink wholeness” or “drink health.” The phrase first appears in this context in a twelfth-century document.
A fourteenth-century document reveals that in that era the toast “wes heil” accompanied the passing of a communal cup. Each person in the gathering received the cup along with a kiss, responded, “Drinc heil,” sipped from the vessel, toasted the next person, and passed the cup to them. A document dating from the thirteenth century mentions a special wassail bowl designed for communal dunking of bread and cakes. By the end of the fourteenth century many wealthy English families possessed heirloom wassail bowls. Much ceremony could accompany the use of these bowls. When King Henry VII (1457-1509) called for his wassail bowl on TWELFTH NIGHT, the following protocol was observed. The chapel choir came into the hall and stood to one side. Next, the steward entered the hall with the royal bowl and cried, “Wassail” three times. Then the choir burst into song.

Historical evidence suggests that sometime in the sixteenth century common folk began carrying wassail bowls from house to house during the Christmas season. They garnished the bowl with decorations such as ribbons, HOLLY, MISTLETOE or other GREENERY, and colored paper. Crying, “Wassail, wassail,” they brought the decorated bowl full of spiced ale to their well-off neighbors, hoping to exchange a cup of Christmas ale for a GIFT of food or a tip. Hence, the groups were called “wassailers,” and the custom itself, “wassailing.” In another variant of this custom the wassailers carried an empty bowl to their neighbors, bidding the householders fill it up for them. Some researchers believe that women upheld this tradition more frequently than men.
Often these wassailers sang carols as they stood in front of their neighbors’ homes. A number of wassailing carols have survived to present times. The following verses of an old wassailing song show that these carolers maintained the practice of toasting another’s health with the beverage donated to them:

Wassail, wassail all over the town Our bread it is white, and our ale it is brown Our bowl it is made of the maple tree So here, my good fellow, I’ll drink to thee.
The wassailing bowl, a toast within Come, fill it up unto the brim Come fill it up that we may all see With the wassailing bowl I’ll drink to thee.
Come, butler, come bring us a bowl of your best And we hope your soul in heaven shall rest But if you do bring us a bowl of your small Then down shall go butler and bowl and all [Duncan, 1992,107].

The following verses of another carol, usually sung by children, show that wassailers did not necessarily limit their requests to drink:

Here we come a wassailing Among the leaves so green, Here we come a wandering So fair to be seen.
Chorus: Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too, And God bless you and send you a happy New Year, And God send you a happy New Year.
We are not daily beggars, That beg from door to door; But we are neighbor’s children Whom you have seen before.
Call up the butler of this house, Put on his golden ring, Let him bring us up a glass of beer And the better we shall sing.
We have got a little purse Made of stretching leather skin, We want a little of your money To line it well within.
Bring us out a table, And spread it with a cloth; Bring us out a moldy cheese And some of your Christmas loaf.
God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go [Chambers, 1990,1: 28].

In rural zones some wassailers sallied forth at night to salute their fruit trees with song and drink (see WASSAILING THE FRUIT TREES). In a few areas these agricultural wassailers bestowed this ritualized blessing on farm animals, such as oxen.
Wassailing took place throughout the Christmas season, the most important dates being those surrounding Christmas, New Year’s, and Twelfth Night. The practice began to die out in the late nineteenth century, along with other seasonal begging customs.

In spite of the decline of public wassailing practices in Victorian times, the British continued to drink from the domestic wassail bowl (see also CHRISTMAS IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND). They referred to the beverage it contained as “wassail.” This drink consisted of sweetened wine or ale spiced with some combination of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, allspice, or coriander. The beverage might also contain chopped apples, beaten eggs, milk, or cream, in which case it was sometimes referred to as LAMB’S WOOL.