Wassailing and English traditions

If you dig a shallow trench into English traditions, you’ll find wassailing and Christmas snuggled up together. Dig the trench deeper, though, and wassailing’s lying by itself: It’s pre-Christian and like many things was taken over by England’s early Christians–possibly because it was easier to convert people if you let them carry over some of their beliefs and possibly because no one had a ability to stop them. What the hell, Christmas itself was folded into Christianity from earlier belief systems, so why not wassailing as well.

 

Wassailing

What do you do when you wassail? It depends where you are, and when, but basically on the twelfth night of Christmas you go to the orchard (of course you have an orchard, or someone does) and make noise. Maybe you sing songs. Maybe you bang pots and pans. Maybe you pour some cider on the trees as an offering. What you want to do is scare off the evil spirits (or wake the sleeping tree spirits, or possibly both; take your pick) to make sure the orchard’s owner has a good harvest next year. 

Almost surely, you’ll have a drink of some warm cider from a shared cup–cider being an alcoholic drink, in case that isn’t clear. The orchard’s owner would supply the drink. Because you scared the evil spirits away and made sure she or he will have a good crop next year. 

Thanks, folks. Really appreciate your help. But before you go, don’t forget to leave some booze-soaked toast on the branches. I expect that symbolizes something or offers something to someone. Your guess is as good as mine.

Irrelevant photo: Sunrise, January 22. 

But if you don’t live in an orchardy part of the country, you and your fellow wassailers will follow a different tradition and go house to house, wishing good health to the people in each one and being offered a drink before you move on–very likely ale. 

By the time you reach the final house, you might be grateful that the village isn’t any bigger.

A lot of England’s door-to-door singing traditions mixed entertainment and aggressive begging, and this strand of wassailing did as well. A wassailing song that’s become a Christmas carol starts out by saying, “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,” and goes on to demand, “Give us some figgy pudding.” The singers threaten not to leave until they get some. From which we learn (a) that they might be given food as well as or instead of drink and (b) that when some singers threaten to give you another song, you’ll give them whatever they ask for.

The song also mentions that the singers aren’t “daily beggars that go from door to door.” They’re neighbors’ children. 

The “daily beggars” line tells us a lot about the period. Beggars are everywhere. People learn to dismiss them. But neighbors children? Bring out the pudding. That line, by the way, is the only place I’ve found wassailing mentioned as a children’s activity. Everything else is about adults. 

At this distance in time, it’s easy to think wassailing meant a community came together in perfect equality and serious inebriation. Everyone gave their neighbors drinks and was there for them again in the morning with era-appropriate hangover remedies. It’s doubtful, but what the hell, it’s a nice thought. It’s more likely that the poor sang for the wealthy and the better-off, who could afford to dish up figgy pudding and booze.

Whether they gave out ale or cider, it would’ve been warmed and spiced, possibly with honey and egg added. When you get to the egg, it sounds horrible, but I’m not going to try the recipe. My commitment to this blog only goes so far. 

 

Anglo-Saxon wassailing

The word wassail may come from the Anglo-Saxon waes hael–”good health,” or “be healthy.” We can hear the echo of that in the modern English word hale. That’s modern English as in the version of the language we speak these days. The word hale itself isn’t used much anymore, making it antiquated modern English.

Don’t think about it too much. Or at least make sure you’re sitting safely when you do.

Wassailing dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, to the time before they converted to Christianity. The lord of the manor would greet the–well, Historic UK calls them his followers, because Anglo-Saxon society involved a strong bond between the lord and his whatevers. Followers is as good a word as I can come up with. The bond would have been both military and economic. I’ve read that it was more of a two-way bond than the relationship between England’s feudal lords and their tenants after the Norman invasion. 

But before we decide that Anglo-Saxon England was a jolly place of glorious equality, remember that it had slavery. Whether the slaves were part of this greeting and drinking I don’t know.

But back to the lord and his followers: He’d say waes hal. And the followers would say drink hael–drink well. Because drinking and good health? What could be more tightly intertwined? 

Again, whatever they drank would’ve been warmed. It’s winter, remember. And they’d pass the bowl around instead of everyone having a cup of their own.

 

Twelfth night

When Christians absorbed wassailing into their own traditions, they pegged it to twelfth night, which falls on January 5. But nothing is ever simple, because when this happened they were using the Julian calendar. Later, they moved to the Gregorian calendar because over the course of centuries the Julian had gone out of whack with reality and the Gregorian–

Think of it as resetting a clock. They reset the calendar and fine-tuned the mechanism, and that happened under Pope Gregory, hence the word Gregorian. 

In the Julian calendar, though, twelfth night was January 17, so if you want to make a show of your purity–or your stash of not very useful knowledge–you can go wassailing on the 17th.

Later wassailing

After the Norman conquest, wassailing continued, and the lord of the manor would be expected to show some generosity in exchange for the peasants’ songs and good wishes. I like to imagine it as one of those rare moments when the peasants got to shake down the lord instead of the other way around.

While they’re drinking, let’s skip well ahead and land in the time when Oliver Cromwell and his band of super-Protestants ran the country. They banned wassailing, along with caroling and Christmas itself. It all smacked of paganism and fun, which weren’t a good fit in the Christian paradise they were trying to build. 

With the Restoration–that’s when the monarchy was cemented back into place and the super-Protestants put back in their box–Christmas and fun took on an intense level of thumb-your-nose-at-the-Puritans joy, and wassailing was in fashion again. I’m tipping into guesswork here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a certain amount of invented tradition didn’t creep in at this point. When there’s a break in a culture, reconstructing the old one can be an act of the imagination. 

49 thoughts on “Wassailing and English traditions

  1. Interesting to learn about wassailing. Like many traditions, sounds like it’s gone through changes over the years yet retained some meaning. Singing or not, it’s annoying when people show up at your door and don’t leave after you’ve given them goodies and given them your time. Wishing you well this holiday season. Stay safe, Ellen.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve always thought the added egg to the cider would be a bit like like egg-nog, or, as the Dutch call their version, Advocaat.

    Hubby doesn’t only sell cheese, he also plants community orchards around town. Last year we did our first wassail -over Zoom! This year we were planning to do it in person, but things aren’t looking good in that respect.

    Wishing you a hale and harty Christmas and New Year!

    Liked by 2 people

    • One of the websites I drew from did call the wassail drink a forerunner of eggnog. I was going to quote it, then wondered what egg in sweetened ale tastes like and thought I’d maybe stay out of that discussion. It might be wonderful, but it sounds awful.

      A Zoom wassail? It’s amazing what people do over Zoom. I once tuned into what I thought was going to be a choral Zoom session. Everyone’s mic was muted, so it was just the one central voice, my imagination, and a a bunch of little squares with their mouths moving. I assume they enjoyed it, but I left.

      Wishing you a good Christmas, and wishing us all good news in the new year.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. In the olden days when I used to Morris Dance (by which I mean pre 2019) we used to run Wassails which in Sussex are called Apple Howls. We used to dance and make noise then go to the trees and do it some more, then people used to put toast soaked in cider onto the trees… the theory was any evil spirits not scared by our racket, would stick to the toast (for some reason) then get carried off by the birds…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A lot of our Christmas traditions – turkey, crackers, Christmas trees, present giving, Boxing Day …come from the Victorian period. It was an era in which the burgeoning middle class had more money to spend on the festivities than ever before and of course, the market rushed to supply demand. The Victorians also placed the focus on Christmas as a family gathering, with child-centred gifts from Father Christmas.
    Wishing you and yours a Happy Christmas !!

    Liked by 2 people

    • If I keep blogging long enough, I’ll probably write about the Victorian reinvention of Christmas. It is interesting–if for no other reason than that so many of us assume the traditions we inherited stretch back to forever. This post, I confess, was a last-minute, on-it’s-Christmas-isn’t-it? post.

      Have a good Christmas. (I generally want to say, “Have a good holiday,” but that doesn’t work in British–people will think I’m expecting them to go somewhere.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Dear Ellen,

      I concur with paulinell about Christmas originating from the Victorian period, specifically with respect to “turkey, crackers, Christmas trees, present giving, Boxing Day”.

      Wishing both of you a 🎄🎊 Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year ☃️🎅!

      Wishing you and your family a wonderfully productive weekend doing or enjoying whatever that satisfies you the most! Take care and prosper!

      Yours sincerely,
      SoundEagle

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Really enjoyable post -I love the old carols and the traditions…like “soaling” which seems related…A sensible thing anytime the poorer classes could wrangle some goodies out of the upper classes. My Uncle Earl used to distill the hard cider down to where it would lift the top of your head off, so I can imagine some of these drinks were quite effective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No disrespect to your Uncle Earl, but I doubt he could’ve taught them much about distilling, although I’m sure he would’ve fit right in and they could all have admired each other’s handiwork until they couldn’t stand up.

      What’s soaling?

      Like

    • I did too, and I think the connection is that they both involve singing. That’s no surprise, since my observation is that if you pour alcohol into the population of Britain a sizable portion of them begin to sing.

      The two traditions seem to have traded DNA, or possibly RNA–I’m not enough of a musician to tell the difference.

      You have a good Christmas too. I’m writing this on a quiet, drizzly Christmas morning. I could almost mistake the world for a peaceful place.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When I wassail, I prefer my eggnog with neither egg nor nog. And wow, do Christians get mad when you tell them that Jesus was actually born in summer and that he wasn’t even white! A peaceful Solstice and Happy Yule to you!

    Liked by 1 person

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