Jane Struthers looks at the history of wassailing in this extract from The Book of Christmas.
English is a fascinating melting pot of languages acquired from other countries, especially those whose kings once occupied our throne. So it’s hardly surprising that the word ‘wassail’ is thought to have come from the Old Norse ves heill, which means to be in good health. The Old English version of this was wes hal, from which we get the word ‘hale’ (meaning ‘healthy’). And, of course, it also gives us ‘wassail’.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, if you wanted to toast someone’s health you would say ‘wassail’, to which the accepted response was ‘drinkhail’. Over the following centuries, the meaning of ‘wassail’ expanded from being a simple drinking toast to the cheerful practice of visiting your neighbours at Christmas and offering them a drink from the wassail bowl you were carrying while you sang them a song. Although both sexes could do this, it was much more customary for women to do the rounds. The contents of the bowl varied, but the traditional wassail drink was mulled ale mixed with spices and topped with pulped roasted apples, and which was often known as lamb’s wool because that’s exactly what it looked like.
Sometimes the words of the wassail song spelled out precisely what its listeners were expected to do, so there was no danger of misunderstanding. This rhyme comes from Worcestershire, which is a prime apple-growing county:
Wassail, wassail, through the town,
If you’ve got any apples throw them down,
Up with the stocking and down with the shoe,
If you’ve got no apples, money will do.
By the seventeenth century, these wassailing parties were performing an additional service for apple farmers, especially in the southern and south-western parts of England. There was no set date for this sort of wassailing, although it always took place at some point during the Christmas season. After offering the occupants of the house a drink from the wassail bowl and serenading them, the wassailers would go into the orchards and bless the trees. They did this in a variety of ways, from drinking a glass of cider in honour of the trees, to placing food (often bread soaked in cider) around a tree’s roots or in its branches, to unleashing a volley of gunfire (which may have been intended to frighten away any evil spirits lurking in the orchard).
Wassailing in orchards has been revived in some parts of Britain in recent years, while in others it has never really gone away.
The Book of Christmas by Jane Struthers (Ebury) is available now.