Wassail Was-what?

The holidays are a time for family, friends, fun, and. . . hazy traditions. Wassail is a drink or a time to party or something right? Dating back to Ye Olden Days? Or is it something more?

Reading about Christmas traditions, superstitions, and legends on Snopes, I came across this information about wassailing:

Contrary to what has come to be popular belief, wassailing has nothing to do with singing carols at people’s houses and then getting drunk with the home’s occupants. Wassailing is the custom of honoring one’s livestock and crops during the Christmas season in hope that this salute will increase yield in the coming year. Toasts are drunk to corn, cows, and fruit trees.

Snopes is such a useful website because the Mikkelsons usually cite their sources. But there was no evidence for this history, and it was one I’d never heard before.

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this short history:

mid-12c., from Old Norse ves heill “be healthy,” a salutation, from ves, imperative of vesa “to be” (see was) + heill “healthy” (see health). Use as a drinking phrase appears to have arisen among Danes in England and spread to native inhabitants. A similar formation appears in Old English wes þu hal, but this is not recorded as a drinking salutation. Sense extended c.1300 to “liquor in which healths were drunk,” especially spiced ale used in Christmas Eve celebrations. Meaning “a carousal, reveling” first attested c.1600. Wassailing “custom of going caroling house to house at Christmas time” is recorded from 1742.

An evolution from a salutation, to drinking spiced ale at Christmas, to carousing. But no mention of animals or crops, just drinking.

I mentioned this discrepancy to my husband and he replied, “What is wassail in the first place?”

I sang a few bars of “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and he just shrugged.

So I wondered. Just what is wassail?

As with so many concepts, I can’t tell you when I first learned about wassailing. It goes without saying that the California Raisin Holiday Special left its mark on me, including “Here We Come a-Waffling“:

The claymation continues to haunt my dreams.

And as a teen, I watched countless hours of Mystery Science Theater 3000, including a sketch about wassail from episode 908: Touch of Satan:

Most of us probably know wassail/wassailing from Christmas carols and alcoholic drinks trying to be cute (Wass-Ale, etc). The word’s origins might seem murky or lost to the mists of time, but the origin is quite straight-forward.

Wassail comes to us straight from Old English via Middle English. The Old English waes hail became Middle English was-hal. Then, as now, was/waes/wes was the past tense of “to be” and hail/hal means “be in good health” (as in “hale and hearty”). This is also related to the Old Norse toast “ves heill.”

William Dunbar, a poet writing in the late 1400s and early 1500s, uses “heill” to mean “health.”

In secreit place this hyndir nycht,
I hard ane beyrne say till ane bricht,
“My huny, my hart, my hoip, my heill,
I have bene lang your luifar leill
And can of yow get confort nane;
How lang will ye with denger deill?
Ye brek my hart, my bony ane!”

[In a secret place this past night,
I heard a fellow say to a pretty girl,
“My honey, my heart, my trust, my health,
I have been long your loyal lover
And can get no comfort from you;
How long will you with danger deal?
You break my heart, my pretty one!”]

I’d never connected this “heill” to “wassail.” Side note, this poem is also notable for being the first recorded written instance of the word “fuck.”

While “heil” looks and sound jarring to modern English speakers, modern German speakers know that “heil” means “good wishes,” “well being,” or “health.”

Some other early users of the word include Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1140), who wrote this charming section from the Prose Brut (c. 1400):

Ronewenne … come wiþ a coupe of golde in here honde, and knelede bifore þe kyng, and saide to him “Whatsaile!” and þe kyng wist nout what it was forto mene … Noþeles, a Latymer tolde þe kyng þe fulle vnderstondyng þerof “whatsaill,” and þat oþer shulde ansuere “drynkehaile.”

Ronewenne… came with a cup of gold in her hand and kneeled before the the king and said to him “Wassail!” And the king knew not what that meant. A Latymer told the king the full meaning of “wassail” and the he should answer with “drink hail.”

A quick check of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Middle English Dictionary suggest Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to use this word in writing.

Beyond simple drinking, people in the past sometimes enjoyed a wassail bowl. Joanna Crosby explains:

In apple-growing areas, the wassail celebration is still practiced, where the community goes out into the orchards “wassailing” or blessing the trees with singing, dancing and loud noises. At this ritual the wassail bowl is poured around the roots of each tree and shared among the participants.

She does not cite her sources (like the original Snopes article I read), nor is it clear how old this tradition might be. In fact, Crosby adds, “It must be noted that many of these rites were re-worked, and re-invented by antiquarians to suit societal and cultural agendas.” As so often happens, a piece from the past might have been re-worked in a way to suit the present only to be passed off as something historical.

In the 1844 novel Auriol, William Harrison Ainsworth describes what (he thinks) wassail was like in 1600:

Music and singing were heard at every corner, and bands of comely damsels, escorted by their sweethearts, went from house to house, bearing huge brown bowls dressed with ribands and rosemary, and filled with a drink called “lamb’s-wool,” composed of sturdy ale, sweetened with sugar, spiced with nutmeg, and having toasts and burnt crabs floating within it,—a draught from which seldom brought its pretty bearers less than a groat, and occasionally a more valuable coin. Such was the vigil of the year 1600.

In this case, “toasts” refers to toasted bread and “burnt crabs” to crabapples. Lambswool is another name for wassail.

In 1860, G. Herbert Rodwell’s novel Old London Bridge, A Romance of the Sixteenth Century described what he thought wassail was like in the 1600s:

Now the delicious “lambs’ wool” was handed round. As many of our readers, particularly the gentler kind, may not be aware of the mysteries of lambs’ wool, we will explain how this exquisite beverage is concocted; a number of apples are tied to the end of a number of strings, and are then hung up to roast before a blazing fire; under each apple stands a tankard of ripe delicious ale, well seasoned with sugar, spice, and nutmeg; when the apples are done thoroughly, they drop from the strings, and having fallen into the ale, it is then ready for drinking. The real name is supposed to have been la mas ubhal, that is, the day of the apple fruit, but being pronounced lamasool, our English tongues soon corrupted it to lambs’ wool.

That “lamb’s wool” is a corruption of another word I can believe, English speakers being what they are. But we cannot know for sure if these authors are describing authentic practices or rewriting history. Just as we shouldn’t trust our own hazy memories of learning about 1800, so we shouldn’t completely trust these authors discussing a time period 200 years before their own.

To close out the 1800s, Gordon Greenlaw also described wassail and lambswool customs in an 1873 article on New Year’s customs:

Among the English, the festivities of New Year’s eve and day are of a very ancient date. In the feudal times, the head of the house presided at these merrymakings over a huge bowl of spiced ale somewhat strangely named “lamb’s-wool.” Having first drunk to the health of those assembled, he passed it around to the others. As each took the bowl to drink, he pronounced the Saxon words “Wass hael,” meaning your health, and from this sprung the name “wassail-bowl.” Numerous songs were sung, one of which, of Gloucestershire origin, contains the following verses:

“Wassail, wassail, over the town, our bread is white and our ale is brown; Our bowl is made of the maplin-tree—We be good fellows all, I drink to thee. Come butler, and bring us a bowl of the best, I hope your soul in heaven may rest; But If you do bring us a bowl of the small, Then down shall fall butler, bowl, and all.”

The poor people carried round on the last day of the year a bowl ornamented with ribbons, and begged for the wherewithal to get it filled, so that they, too, might enjoy the wassail.

At the monasteries, then so numerous in England, the abbot stood behind an enormous wassail-bowl, which was called, in their ecclesiastical language, “Poculum Caritatis [Loving Cup],” and, having drunk to all, the others drank in regular succession, the one to the other, until the wassail had gone the round of the tables.

A relic of this custom is still retained by the corporation of the city of London. A double-handled flagon of spiced wine is placed before the lady-mayoress if she be present, or, in her absence, before the presiding officer, and she or he, standing up and holding the flagon in both hands, drinks to the health of the company, as called out by the toast-master. He then passes it to the person on his left hand, who, also standing, drinks to his lefthand neighbor, and so on in turn until all have partaken. The ceremony is known as that of the “Loving Cup.”

The song cited here seems to suggest the lullaby “Rock-a-bye baby” might be related to drinking, which sort of makes sense when you think about it.

That said, Aphra Behn, a seventeenth century writer, does reference lambswool:

And dying Sacraments do less prevail,
Than living ones, though took in Lamb’s-Wool-Ale.
Who wou’d not then be for a Common-weal,
To have the Villain covered with his Zeal?

Samuel Pepys also mentions a wassailbowl (washealbowle) in his diary in 1661:

Thursday 26 December 1661

This morning Sir W. Pen and I to the Treasury office, and there we paid off the Amity (Captain Stokes’s ship that was at Guinny) and another ship, and so home, and after dinner Sir William came to me, and he and his son and Aaugliter, and I and my wife, by coach to Moorfields to walk; but it was most foul weather, and so we went into an alehouse and there eat some cakes and ale, and a washeallbowle woman and girl came to us and sung to us. And after all was done I called my boy (Wayneman) to us to eat some cake that was left, and the woman of the house told us that he had called for two cakes and a pot of ale for himself, at which I was angry, and am resolved to correct him for it. So home, and Sir W. Pen and his son and daughter to supper to me to a good turkey, and were merry at cards, and so to bed.

So even if our nineteenth century authors don’t have all of the details quite right, they’re not completely wrong; lamb’s-wool-ale was at least a thing that existed in some form, as was the wassailbowl. But it also seems like these drinks were more popular in the 1800s than the 1600s. Perhaps these authors and others were trying to create a more ancient custom.

Like any good recipe, wassail has transformed from a simple drink (probably mead or ale) to a spiced ale or spiced wine to a punch dotted with bobbing apples to a trifle-like dessert. Because of a lack of cookbooks in general, pre-Renaissance recipes are tough to find; my resources only turned up modern recipes with a note that they would be similar to what medieval people drank. If you want some old but not ancient recipes, check out Richard Cook’s Oxford Night Caps from 1827.

Wassail, then, may have its origins in an Old English saying and Middle English toast, but really took off in terms of revelry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with renewed interest in the nineteenth century. Wassail is a drink to your health, an excuse to party, and perhaps even a way to honor one’s orchard. Ancient words used to describe not-quite-as-ancient-customs. Even so, health and joy to you!

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