Today, most people think of wassailing only in connection with toasting the apple orchards in the south of England on Twelfth Night. However, in the past, wassailing was a wide-spread custom, associated with wishing health to people, crops and animals; apple trees were wassailed to make them bear fruit, and even bees were wassailed to make them produce more honey. It was carried out at various times of the year, notably at Yule, Candlemas, May Day and Halloween. In Ireland, for example, after apple gathering in autumn, it was the custom to mix a bowl of la mas nbhal, a drink of spiced ale, wine, or cider with small apples and pieces of toasted bread. Each person present had to take an apple and wish good luck to the other members of the party.
The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase Wæs hal, which was used as a greeting. Wæs means ‘to be’ and hal means ‘hale’ or ‘whole’. The greeting often accompanied the welcoming of a guest with a cup of ale or mead, and so became a toast (the correct response to which is Drinc Hale meaning “I drink to your good health”) and eventually wassailing, the act of toasting someone or something on special occasions with spiced ale or wine.
It was also a good opportunity for the poorer members of the community to collect money, going from door to door, singing wassailing songs for a penny or two. The practice of singing songs to accompany drinking from the wassail bowl was probably the origin of Christmas carolling and has lead to the more modern equation of the terms wassailing and carolling during the Christmas and New Year period.
Wassail bowls were often very ornate, decorated with birds, berries, oak leaves and other figures. The Welsh folk museum houses one made of lignum vitae. The actual drink was usually combination of ale, sherry, wine or cider and spices, topped with bread or apples, occasionally fluffed up with beaten egg.
A variation of wassailing was vesselling or besselling (a corruption of ‘wassailing’) where people carried boxes containing dolls to represent Jesus and Mary, and the dolls were revealed to those who gave alms. This custom is also known at other times of the year, for example as in Leicestershire when May Dolls, mounted on broomsticks, were revealed for a small payment.
A wassail bowl was often carried from house to house, offering drink to each householder for luck. A wassailing song went thus:
A wassail, a wassail, throughout all the town,
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our wassail is made of the good ale and true,
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best we could brew.
A similar wassail rhyme which has been recorded over quite a wide area is:
Wassail, oh wassail all over the town
The cup it is white, the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the beer of the best barley
The wassailers often wore disguises and costumes to remove them from the everyday to something ‘other’, as is often the case with ritual actors at special times of year. In the Gower Peninsula, the wassailers went around with blackened faces or masks, or wore disguises such as the Bessy (a man dressed as a woman) who carried a besom, while others whacked each other with stave. In the 1660s and 1670s a Sussex clergyman gave money to boys who came to ‘howl’ his orchard, the custom being performed by the ‘Howlers’ or the ‘Howling Boys’. In Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton describes a photograph from the 1890s showing the captain of the Dunction Howlers, Richard (‘Spratty’) Knight, dressed in a suit of floral material, with a string of apples around his neck and a large hat decorated with apples.
In some cases, the wassailers engaged in a series of challenging verses or riddles with the householder or sought to gain entry to the house by wit or persuasion. One such verse, which was popular in Staffordshire and Warwickshire, was recorded by a Mr Rann of Dudley in 1819 and was published in The Every-Day Book as The Carroll for a Wassell Bowl:
A jolly Wassel-Bowl
A Wassel of good ale,
Well fare the butler’s sole
That setteth this to sale – Our jolly Wassel
Good Dame, here at your door
Our Wassel we begin
We are all maidens pure
We pray now let us in – With our good Wassel
Our Wassel we do fill
With apples and with spice
They kindly will agree
To take a good carouse – Of our Wassel
But here they let us stand
All freezing in the cold
Good Master give command
To enter and be bold – With our Wassel
Some farms would only let the men take part in the wassailing and when they returned to the farmhouse they would find that the women had locked them out. They were made to stay outside until they had guessed what type of meat was cooking on the spit or titbit held on the end of a stick. Whoever correctly guessed the type would then be rewarded with the titbit or a small gift. There was a belief, especially amongst the women, that if this custom be omitted then the following harvest would be doomed to failure.
It seems to have been the tradition to wassail the orchards and farm animals on Twelfth Night. Cattle were toasted to keep them healthy. The prize cow was given a special cake with a hole in the middle (a symbol of the sun) and regaled with the words:
Fill your cups my merry men all!
For here’s the best ox in the stall!
Oh he is the best ox, of that there’s no mistake,
And so let us crown him with the Twelfth cake!
The cake was hooked over one of its horns. In Herefordshire and Monmouthshire a plum pudding might be stuck on a cow’s horn and the beast frightened into running until it tossed the pudding – if the pudding fell forward, a good harvest was predicted, but if it fell backwards, the harvest would be poor.
In parts of Scotland, the sea was similarly honoured, with ale poured into the waves in hope this would encourage good fishing in the coming year.
The first recorded example of wassailing the orchards was at Fordwich, Kent, in 1585, when groups of young men who went between orchards performing the rite for a reward. The Devonshire poet Robert Herrick’s Hesperides was written in the year 1647 and states:
Wassail the trees that they may bear
You, many a plum, and many a pear;
For more or less fruits they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing.
Wassailing the orchards usually involved either the land owner or specially selected bands of wassailers, like the Howlers, visiting the orchard at night, selecting the oldest or most fruitful tree (known in Somerset as the Apple Tree Man) to represent the whole orchard. The tree might be beaten with sticks in order to wake it up after its winter sleep. Bread or cakes soaked in cider would be placed in the tree’s branches and the wassail song sung, then loud noises made to frighten evil spirits away from the orchard. One ceremony in Devon involved hoisting a young boy, who represented the spirit of the tree, into the branches, and he would be given offerings of bread, cheese and cider.
Wassailing had all but died out at the beginning of the twentieth century, but has been revived in many cider areas, usually on Twelfth Night. Since the 1970s wassailing has often been associated with morris dancing, as it was usually morris sides who initiated the revival of old traditions generally.
© Anna Franklin, Yule, History, Lore and Celebration, Lear Books, 2010