Most of us have heard and even sung the Christmas Wassail Song. It seems very ancient, referring to the English custom of caroling from house to house, expecting to be treated with drink or food, or with gifts of money. The usual wassail drink was some type of mulled wine or mulled cider, presented in a special wassail bowl. Caroling and wassailing still continue, though like many traditions, will be curtailed this year by our terrible health crisis. Let's hope that by next Christmas time the vaccine will allow us to go back to old customs.
The familiar verses of the Wassail Song tell us that the wassailers were friends and neighbors who visit as well-wishers in the spirit of the season:
But we are neighbors' children,
Whom you have seen before.
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.
The wassail custom and the wassail bowl have a very long history in England. In Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, historian Ronald Hutton writes of the earliest recorded Christmas custom centered around the wassail bowl or cup:
"The custom connected with it was first described by Peter de Langtoft, writing in the 1320s; the leader of a gathering took it, and cried ‘wassail’, Old English for ‘your health’. That person was answered ‘Drinkhail,’ drank from it, and passed it to the next of the company with a kiss. Each then repeated these actions. The custom may not, in fact, have been much older than Langtoft’s time. From the famous eighth-century poem Beowulf to the fourteenth-century conduct-book of Robert of Brunne, the word ‘wassail’ appears as a toast: it is simply Anglo-Saxon for ‘be of good health’. The bowl is first mentioned by Matthew Paris in the thirteenth century, as one in which cakes and fine white bread were communally dipped." (p. 13).
Hutton describes a long tradition of precious metal wassail bowls beginning in medieval times. He summarizes how there were many carols and songs, some meant to accompany dancing, associated with the wassailing customs -- not just the best-known song that I quoted. The wassailers not only received food and drink, but sometimes money or gifts. Even the kings observed wassailing customs until the sixteenth century:
"The wassail bowl is apparently not heard of at the royal court after the time of Henry VIII, but is reported at all other levels of society in the years 1600-30. Jonson portrayed it as a brown bowl decorated with ribbons and rosemary. Payments to ‘wassailers’ feature in gentry household accounts throughout the late Stuart and Hanoverian ages. During the same years the domestic wassail continued as well: around Leeds, in Yorkshire, during the 1780s, a cup of ale with roasted apples in it was passed round after supper on every Twelfth Eve. Each person spooned out an apple and wished the company a merry Christmas and happy New Year. The date was known locally as ‘Wassail Eve.'" (p. 22).
Christmas wassailing continued throughout English history -- a quote from a writer in 1831 described a household on 12th night:
"seated round a huge oaken table, with the yuletide log blazing on the fire, and the wassail bowl with its contents (generally sugared ale, toast, etc., and sometimes enriched with eau de vie) sparkling, the large sirloin of beef… smoking on the board, the old harper increasing the mirth with the melodious strains of his harp and ‘the joke and jest going round’" (p. 64).
Don't you get a warm feeling from this description of a truly old tradition that continues into this century, and perhaps has made its way into our currently troubled lives? I'm sharing this little historic look at a traditional beverage with Elizabeth and other bloggers who write something about a drink each week.
If you want to make a wassail bowl to serve during your own celebration, the web offers many recipes. From The Spruce, a summary of the ingredients:
“The earliest recorded recipes of wassail included warmed mead, an ale brewed with honey, which was then brewed with roasted crab apples. Later, the beverage became a mulled cider made with sugar and various spices like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Today, wassail recipes are abundant, with home cooks putting their personal twists on the traditional historical drink. Modern recipes can begin with wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale with brandy or sherry added. Fresh apples or oranges are often added to the brew.”
A completely different, parallel tradition in some parts of England involved "wassailing" to invoke good harvests and healthy trees or other agricultural good fortune. Sometimes this custom is confused with Christmas wassailing and caroling, but it's actually a separate tradition.
Blog post © 2020 mae sander. Image of carolers from Historic UK