Monday, December 21, 2020

Christmas and the Wassail Song

A silver and mother-of-pearl wassail bowl from 1650-1700.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (source)

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:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbors' children,
Whom you have seen before. 

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

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).
19th century Wassail bowl from Swansea Museum.

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


Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I recently saw a documentary on PBS on the 12 Days of King Henry VII's Christmas. They also showed a wassailing bowl. Nicely done and a good review. And I always enjoy seeing what you give us that is truly outside the box for T as you have once again this week, Mae.

Divers and Sundry said...

I first heard about wassailing from that song :) I've never made it, though we do warm and spice the cider. I'd never heard of the other wassailing tradition. Fascinating.

Karen said...

I never knew this is what the line was: "And to you your wassail too"
very interesting! Thank you for teaching me something new today ~ Enjoy the week ~ Love, Karen

Eileen Bergen said...

I love the wassailing song. Thank you for the background and inside story.

Happy T-day and Wassailing to you! Hugs, Eileen

kathyinozarks said...

Lovely and informative post-thank you Happy T

My name is Erika. said...

This is a fascinating read. I hope this tradition, as well as others, can get back on track next year. And those wassail bowls are really beautiful. Have a great T day Mae.

Kate Yetter said...

Sounds like a yummy drink. Loved hearing about the history. I do so enjoy this song.
Merry Christmas and Happy Tea Day,

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

I've never heard of this. Thank you for sharing such an interesting part of history.

Valerie-Jael said...

Wonderful post. We used to go carol singing when I was at school, but only got tea or soft drinks! Have a great week! Valerie

Iris Flavia said...

I´ve never heard of this! Thank you! Such a sweet song, but oh! Kids got wine?! LOL.
"wassail" sure has a special meaning this Christmas, too. "Gesundheit"... I bought Christmas-beer. But reckon I need mulled wine indeed (usually Christmas-Market,....)

Anne in the kitchen said...

Your post are always interesting and I always learn from them.. This is no exception! Thank you!

Debra Eliotseats said...

When we're all together we make a wassail concocted with cider, OJ, pineapple juice, apricot nectar, spices (and sometimes brandy). Not sure I will even mix any up this year. :( Thanks for the history lesson, though.

Lisca said...

How interesting! I'd heard of wassailing, but in Bristol where we lived in the suburb, it wasn't done, so I never saw it. But I knew that in the country and in the villages this custom is still very much alive.(In the UK)
The drink sounds a bit ike Gluhwein, that I remember from Austria or Germany. It's not terribly alcoholic, but it has spices in it and is slightly sweetened.
Happy T-Day and Happy Christmas,

Jeanie said...

How interesting! I think I'd like to do a wassail bowl sometime -- not this year, though. Love the history and the look back into time. Thanks for this one!

DVArtist said...

A very nice post. The information is so interesting. Thank you for sharing it. Have a wonderful day.

Let's Art Journal said...

I've heard of wassailing as I live in the UK and I found your post very interesting 😀. Thanks for sharing and Happy T Day! Hugs, Jo x

CJ Kennedy said...

Fabulous post. The wassail cups are so beautiful. Happy T Day and Wassail!

Sharon Madson said...

So interesting. I really enjoy hearing the history of our Christmas carols. At a special Christmas church service this week, Candy canes & Carols, we sang carols. But before each one a gentleman told us it's history. Made it even more meaningful. Then we ended by singing Silent night holding battery candles. Then we all got candy canes. A beautiful service. Merry Chiristmas!

Anne (cornucopia) said...

I love that song. Merry Christmas and Happy belated T-Day!