Wassail and Wassailing

wassail glass

Wassail the Drink

When wandering through a Christmas market on a chilly winter’s day, nothing tastes better than a hot, spiced cider. It might be called mulled cider or spiced cider, but traditionally it’s known as wassail. This warming drink is flavored with fruit, spices, and honey, and in the olden days it would have had pieces of spiced toast floating on top.

The word “wassail” comes from an old English greeting: “waes hael” which meant “be in good health.” It turned into a sort of toast with one person shouting “waes hael” and the others responding “drinc hael” or “drink and be healthy.” And, incidentally, the word “toast” (as in words said before drinking) may have come from the custom of using toast to flavor drinks.

wassail etomology

Wassail has been consumed in Britain for hundreds of years and two different activities, which are both called wassailing, have developed around it.

Wassailing at the Manor

One form of wassailing, which began in the Middle Ages, resembled Christmas caroling with a trick-or-treat twist. Groups of peasants would make a big bowl of wassail and go around to their feudal lord’s manor. They would gather outside the door and start singing. Soon the lord and lady would appear. They would listen and smile as their peasants serenaded them.

When the song was over, the peasants waited for their gifts. The lord and lady might give them a mince pie, some bread, money, etc. In exchange, the peasants would bestow their blessings on the household and wish them a prosperous year. The singing was similar to Christmas caroling and the expectation of gifts sounds a bit like trick-or-treating.

Understanding this traditional form of wassailing, the words to some of the old caroling songs make a bit more sense. For example, in We Wish You a Merry Christmas the singers bring glad tidings to the house – but in return, they want some figgy pudding. In fact, they want it so much that they aren’t about to leave until they get it.

Wassail -We wish you a merry ChristmasWe Wish You a Merry Christmas

We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a Happy New Year!

Good tidings we bring
To you and your kin;
We wish you a Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year!

Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
Now bring us some figgy pudding,
And bring some out here!

For we all like figgy pudding,
We all like figgy pudding,
We all like figgy pudding,
So bring some out here!

And we won’t go until we’ve got some,
We won’t go until we’ve got some,
We won’t go until we’ve got some,
So bring some out here!

The same theme runs through the song Here We Come A-Wassailing, but this time the peasants send their children around. The kids start out with blessings, then they make sure the manor owners know they are not run-of-the-mill beggars. They lay on the guilt by asking, ‘Please think of us as you’re sitting by your warm fire and we are out in the cold and mud.’ Next come the demands – and they don’t just want a figgy pudding: They want a table set up for them (with a tablecloth) and they want money too.

Wassail We're not your normal beggars

Here We Come A-Wassailing

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

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 beggers
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors’ children
Whom you have seen before

Good master and good mistress,
As you sit beside the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who wander in the mire.

We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.

Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a cheese,
And 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.

wassailing in orchard 700

Wassailing in the Orchard

These wassailing peasants didn’t only go to rich landlords’ homes, they also went out into the orchards. But the idea was similar. They would sing to the trees and then ask them for gifts.

They gathered in the orchard wearing costumes and carrying torches. One tree (often the oldest or most fruitful) would be chosen as “the spirit of the orchard.” They would sing, recite poems, and enact short plays for the pleasure of this tree. Bonfires and lots of noise (made by clanging pots and pans) were meant to awaken the sleeping tree spirit and scare away evil spirits.

wassailing a tree 700

Of course, they would also drink wassail and share it with the tree by pouring some out around its roots. Then wassail-soaked bread would be placed in the branches. Since the trees couldn’t give them any figgy pudding, the peasants asked them to give  lots of fruit in the coming season.

It’s a very old ceremony that’s coming back into vogue in the cider producing regions of the UK. Orchard wassailing traditionally took place on the twelfth night, which in the Middle Ages was January 17. In 1582 the Julian calendar replaced the Gregorian calendar and moved the twelfth night up to January 5 or 6. However, many orchards, especially in Southwest England, still carry out the wassailing ceremonies on the “old twelfth night.”

Below are two orchard-wassailing poems. The first one is nice and friendly, but the second is more like an ultimatum.

Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray thee God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig, apples big.
Every bough, apples now.
— 19th century Sussex, Surrey

Apple-tree, apple-tree,
Bear good fruit,
Or down with your top
And up with your root.
— 19th century S. Hams, Devon

Thankfully, we no longer have feudal lords that we have to beg gifts from, but if you have an apple tree, you might want to consider singing to it this holiday season. If you don’t have a tree, share a cup of wassail with friends or just have one yourself.

Happy Holidays!

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Image Sources: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3-4 by me, Image 5, Image 6

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Wassail and Wassailing
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Margo Lestz

I am a perpetual student who enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

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12 comments

  1. Margo! I so enjoy it when a new blog arrives into my email from you! So I wait until I can sit quietly in the evening, with a glass of wine, to sit and read, see the beautiful graphic photos you post, with lovely notes of
    the history that goes along with them. Your readings relax me, and I can visually try to picture the places you speak of. Thank you for the time you spend on these blogs, and please know……I can see from what I read that you have many followers who feel the same as I do! Wishing you a peaceful holiday Festive Season!

    Warm Regards……Carolyn from Boston

    1. Hi Carolyn. Thank you so much for your lovely message: I feel like I just got an early Christmas present.
      I enjoy discovering and writing these stories, and it’s really nice to know that others appreciate them. Thank you for your kind words.
      Wishing you a wonderful, joyful holiday season!
      Best, – Margo

  2. I so, so agree with Carolyn from Boston! It was so well said. So, I will just say “ ditto that”. While the last thing I am is a cook, I am going to give the Wassail recipe a shot. I’ll report how it goes.
    Wishing you all a Merry Ho! Ho! Ho!
    Liane from Vancouver, Canada

    1. Thank you so much, Liane. That’s very nice of you to say. I really appreciate all my lovely readers. Happy holidays to you and good luck with that wassail! I think I may have to venture out into the cold today and buy me a cup. 🙂
      All the best, -Margo

  3. I love a Wassail! They’re so much fun and it’s so nice to get the community together. Went to one in London yesterday and it was such a loving and beautiful experience – the singing was incredible. I wish more people knew about them! Take care, Gemma

    1. Oh, how nice! I thought the season was over for them. I’ll be in London in a few weeks, I’ll have to check and see if there are any more. Thanks for the heads-up. Best – Margo

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