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.



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.