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"Here we come a-wassailing" performed by the U.S. Army Band

The tradition of wassailing (alt spwasselling) [1] falls into two distinct categories: the house-visiting wassail and the orchard-visiting wassail. The house-visiting wassail is the practice of people going door-to-door, singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts; this practice still exists, but has largely been displaced by caroling. [2] The orchard-visiting wassail refers to the ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions of England, reciting incantations and singing to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year. [3]

Wassail Hot mulled cider

Wassail is a beverage of hot mulled cider, drunk traditionally as an integral part of wassailing, a Medieval Christmastide English drinking ritual intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year.

An orchard is an intentional planting of trees or shrubs that is maintained for food production. Orchards comprise fruit- or nut-producing trees which are generally grown for commercial production. Orchards are also sometimes a feature of large gardens, where they serve an aesthetic as well as a productive purpose. A fruit garden is generally synonymous with an orchard, although it is set on a smaller non-commercial scale and may emphasize berry shrubs in preference to fruit trees. Most temperate-zone orchards are laid out in a regular grid, with a grazed or mown grass or bare soil base that makes maintenance and fruit gathering easy.

Cider fermented alcoholic beverage from apple juice

Cider is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of apples. Cider is popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland, especially in the West Country, and widely available. The UK has the world's highest per capita consumption, as well as its largest cider-producing companies. Cider is also popular in many Commonwealth countries, such as India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Aside from the UK and its former colonies, cider is popular in other European countries including Portugal, France, northern Italy, and Spain. Central Europe also has its own types of cider with Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse producing a particularly tart version known as Apfelwein. In the U.S. and parts of Canada, varieties of fermented cider are often called hard cider to distinguish alcoholic cider from non-alcoholic "cider" or "sweet cider", also made from apples.



The word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning "be thou hale"—i.e., “be in good health”. The correct response to the greeting is Drinc hæl meaning "drink and be healthy". [4] [5] According to the Oxford English Dictionary waes hael is the Middle English (and hence post-Norman) spelling parallel to OE hál wes þú, and was a greeting not a toast. [5]

<i>Oxford English Dictionary</i> Premier historical dictionary of the English language

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the principal historical dictionary of the English language, published by Oxford University Press. It traces the historical development of the English language, providing a comprehensive resource to scholars and academic researchers, as well as describing usage in its many variations throughout the world. The second edition, comprising 21,728 pages in 20 volumes, was published in 1989.

Middle English Stage of the English language from about the 12th through 15th centuries

Middle English was a form of the English language, spoken after the Norman conquest (1066) until the late 15th century. English underwent distinct variations and developments following the Old English period. Scholarly opinion varies, but the Oxford English Dictionary specifies the period when Middle English was spoken as being from 1150 to 1500. This stage of the development of the English language roughly followed the High to the Late Middle Ages.

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest historical form of the English language, spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages. It was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers probably in the mid-5th century, and the first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th century. After the Norman conquest of 1066, English was replaced, for a time, as the language of the upper classes by Anglo-Norman, a relative of French. This is regarded as marking the end of the Old English era, as during this period the English language was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman, developing into a phase known now as Middle English.

The American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, gives Old Norse ves heill as the source of Middle English waeshaeil. [6] However the Oxford English Dictionary explicitly rejects this, saying "neither in Old English nor in Old Norse, nor indeed in any Germanic language, has any trace been found of the use as drinking formulas". [5]

Later, in the twelfth century, Danish-speaking inhabitants of England turned "was hail", and the reply "drink hail", into a drinking formula, a toast, adopted widely by the indigenous population of England. [7] [5] In recent times, the toast has come to be synonymous with Christmas.

Christmas holiday originating in Christianity, usually celebrated on December 25 (in the Gregorian or Julian calendars)

Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ observed on December 25. as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an octave. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world's nations, is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians, as well as culturally by many non-Christians, and forms an integral part of the holiday season centered around it.

Wassailing and Yulesinging

Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night (variously on either January 5 or 6). Some people still wassail on "Old Twelvey Night", January 17, as it would have been before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. [4]

Twelfth Night (holiday) Christian holiday

Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity that takes place on the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, marking the coming of the Epiphany. Different traditions mark the date of Twelfth Night on either 5 January or 6 January, depending on which day one considers to be the first of the Twelve Days: 25 or 26 December.

In the middle ages, the wassail was a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient-initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from begging. This point is made in the song "Here We Come A-Wassailing", when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that

Peasant member of a traditional class of farmers

A peasant is a pre-industrial agricultural laborer or farmer, especially one living in the Middle Ages under feudalism and that does NOT own airbuds. In Europe, peasants were divided into three classes according to their personal status: slave, serf, and free tenant. Peasants either hold title to land in fee simple, or hold land by any of several forms of land tenure, among them socage, quit-rent, leasehold, and copyhold.

Begging practice of imploring others to grant a favor with little or no expectation of reciprocation

Begging is the practice of imploring others to grant a favor, often a gift of money, with little or no expectation of reciprocation. A person doing such is called a beggar, panhandler, or mendicant. Street beggars may be found in public places such as transport routes, urban parks, and near busy markets. Besides money, they may also ask for food, drink, cigarettes or other small items.

we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door
But we are friendly neighbours whom you have seen before.

The lord of the manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, i.e.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year

This would be given in the form of the song being sung. Wassailing is the background practice against which an English carol such as "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" can be made sense of. [8] The carol lies in the English tradition where wealthy people of the community gave Christmas treats to the carolers on Christmas Eve such as 'figgy puddings'. [9]

Although wassailing is often described in innocuous and sometimes nostalgic terms—still practiced in some parts of Scotland and Northern England on New Years Day as "first-footing"—the practice in England has not always been considered so innocent. Similar traditions have also been traced to Greece and the country of Georgia. Wassailing was associated with rowdy bands of young men who would enter the homes of wealthy neighbours and demand free food and drink (in a manner similar to the modern children's Halloween practice of trick-or-treating). [10] If the householder refused, he was usually cursed, and occasionally his house was vandalized. The example of the exchange is seen in their demand for "figgy pudding" and "good cheer", i.e., the wassail beverage, without which the wassailers in the song will not leave; "We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here". [9]

The orchard-visiting Wassail

In the cider-producing West of England (primarily the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) wassailing also refers to drinking (and singing) the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive. Wassailing is also a traditional event in Jersey, Channel Islands where cider (cidre) made up the bulk of the economy before the 20th century. The format is much the same as that in England but with terms and songs often in Jèrriais

An old rhyme goes:

Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.

An apple sapling, hung with toast, placed in a handcart and pushed around the streets during the Chepstow Mari Lwyd, 2014 Toast tree trolley.jpg
An apple sapling, hung with toast, placed in a handcart and pushed around the streets during the Chepstow Mari Lwyd, 2014

The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn. [11] The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next, the wassail Queen will then be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she will place toast soaked in Wassail from the Clayen Cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). Then an incantation is usually recited such as

Here's to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An' all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Then the assembled crowd will sing and shout and bang drums and pots & pans and generally make a terrible racket until the gunsmen give a great final volley through the branches to make sure the work is done and then off to the next orchard. Perhaps unbeknown to the general public, this ancient English tradition is still very much thriving today. The West Country is the most famous and largest cider producing region of the country and among the most historic wassails held annually are Whimple in Devon and Carhampton in Somerset both on 17 January (old Twelfth Night).

There are now many new, commercial or "revival" wassails springing up all over the Westcountry such as those in Stoke Gabriel and Sandford, Devon. Clevedon (North Somerset) holds an annual Wassailing event in the popularly attended Clevedon Community Orchard, combining the traditional elements of the festival with the entertainment and music of the Bristol Morris Men and their cantankerous Horse.

Private readings about people in Somerset in the 1800s revealed that inhabitants of Somerset practised the old Wassailing Ceremony, singing the following lyrics after drinking the cider until they were "merry and gay:"

Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,
Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah,
Holler biys, holler hurrah.


A folktale from Somerset reflecting this custom tells of the Apple Tree Man, the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and in whom the fertility of the orchard is thought to reside. In the tale a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the Apple Tree Man who reveals to him the location of buried gold. [13] [14]

Wassail bowls

Sharing the Wassail Bowl Twelfth Night wassail.jpg
Sharing the Wassail Bowl

Wassail bowls, generally in the shape of goblets, have been preserved. The Worshipful Company of Grocers made a very elaborate one in the seventeenth century, decorated with silver. [15] It is so large that it must have passed around as a "loving cup" so that many members of the guild could drink from it.[ citation needed ]

In the British Christmas carol "Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town", the singers tell that their "bowl is made of the white maple tree, with a wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee".[ clarification needed ] White maple is a completely flavorless wood, commonly used even today to make some kitchen utensils, and likely was what many simple peasant wassail bowls were made from. Variants may be sung where the Wassail bowl is made of other woods, e.g. "Sycamore tree", "grand old Oak tree", "the good ashen tree", and so on.

There are surviving examples of "puzzle wassail bowls", with many spouts. As you attempt to drink from one of the spouts, you are drenched from another spout. The drink was either punch, mulled wine or spicy ale.

See also

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  1. Sussex Entymology Doreathea Hurst, History and Antiquities of Horsham, Farncombe & Co, 1889
  2. Kvamme, Torstein O. (1935). The Christmas Carolers' Book in Song & Story. Alfred Music. p. 6.
  3. Palmer, K.; Patten, R. W. (December 1971). "Some Notes on Wassailing and Ashen Faggots in South and West Somerset". Folklore. 82 (4): 281–291. doi:10.1080/0015587X.1971.9716741.
  4. 1 2 "Wassailing! - Notes On The Songs And Traditions". www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com. Retrieved 7 January 2016.
  5. 1 2 3 4 "Oxford English Dictionary". www.oed.com.
  6. "The American Heritage Dictionary entry: wassail". www.ahdictionary.com. Retrieved 7 January 2016.
  7. http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Holiday06/wassail.cfm
  8. We Wish You a Merry Christmas Lyrics
  9. 1 2 English Christmas Carols - Christmas Songs of England
  10. Matt Crenson (22 December 2006). "Take Cheer: Christmas has Been Out of Control for Centuries". AP.
  11. Sue, Clifford; Angela, King (2006). England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive. Saltyard Books. p. 528. ISBN   978-0340826164.
  12. "Reminiscences of Life in the parish of Street, Somersetshire dated 1909 at pages 25-26 written by an "old inhabitant" William Pursey of Street 1836-1919. This is the art of wassail.
  13. Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books. pp. 9–10. ISBN   0394409183.
  14. Briggs, Katharine and Tongue, Ruth (1965). Folktales of England. University of Chicago Press. pp. 44–47. ISBN   0226074943.
  15. http://www.bmagic.org.uk/objects/1965T391 Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery