The tradition of wassailing is a very ancient custom: in centuries past, so-called wassailers went from door to door, singing (and drinking) to the health of their neighbors. This concept actually dates back to pre-Christian fertility rites, when villagers traveled through their fields and orchards in the middle of winter, singing and shouting to drive away the spirits that supposedly might inhibit the growth of future crops.
As part of this celebration, they also poured wine and cider on the ground to encourage fertility in the crops.
Eventually, this evolved into the idea of Christmas caroling, which became popular during the Victorian era, and is still present today in many areas.
In England, some of traditional secular wassailing songs were performed back as early as the days of King Henry VIII (1491-1547).
The word “wassail” comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase “waes hael”, which means “good health”. Not by chance, groups would go out wassailing on cold evenings, and when they approached a door would be offered a mug of warm cider or ale.
Originally, the wassail was in fact a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar, and it was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. Wassailing was traditionally done on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night, but some rich people drank Wassail on all the 12 days of Christmas.
One legend about how Wassailing was created, says that a beautiful Saxon maiden named Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine while toasting him with the words “waes hael”.
In any case, over the centuries, a great deal of ceremony developed around the custom of drinking wassail: the bowl was carried into a room with a great fanfare, a traditional carol about the drink was sung, and finally, the steaming hot beverage was served.
One of the most popular Wassailing Carols went like this:
A Wassail Bowl
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wassailing,
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.
In some parts of England, such as Somerset and Sussex where apples are grown especially for cider, Wassailing still today takes place on Twelfth Night or sometimes New Year’s Eve or even Christmas Eve. People go into apple orchards and then sing songs, make loud noises and dance around to scare of any evil spirits and also to wake up the trees so they will give a good crop.
It’s also a common practice to place toast which has been soaked in beer into the bows of the trees to feed and thank the trees for giving apples.
In parts of South Wales in the United Kingdom, there is the tradition of the “Mari Lwyd” wassailing horse, but this is another story…