My earliest memory is of finding, in a keepsake box on a windowsill, the plastic wristband that had been put on my arm when I was born. I knew it was significant, that it was something I’d seen before, but I couldn’t figure out why because I was too young. It was only later that I managed to rationalise everything into sense, and even now, I don’t remember the wristband being on my arm, I only remember remembering it.
I mention this because there is a firm tradition in British Christmas carols to mention wassailing, as being a fine festive tradition, but the act of wassailing itself is not one which is widely known. So the remembrance of the thing is what lingers, not the thing itself.
So what is the thing itself? Well, as with anything old, it’s complicated. The word wassail is derived from the middle English toast wæs hæl, and simply means “good fortune to you.” It is also the name given to a medieval mulled beverage – commonly beer or mead, but latterly cider – made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, with chunks of actual toast floating at the top. Wassail (variations of which have also been called Lamb’s Wool or Purl) was once a very common festive drink, which is one of the reasons it pops up in Christmas carols.
Wassailing is an ancient musical ceremony performed by cider farmers, to cleanse their trees of evil spirits after harvest, in the hope that they will bear good fruit in the new year. It originally took place in early January, either the 6th or the 17th. Cider was brewed all across the south of England, from Kent to Cornwall, and while there are many regional variations, the wassailing ceremony had many common elements:
A wassail King and his wassail Queen would lead a throng, banging on pots and pans, in procession, wandering from orchard to orchard and singing. At each stop, the Queen would be lifted into a tree, carrying the Clayen Cup filled with wassail. Once up there, she would leave some of the toast, as an offering to the good spirits of the tree, a way of showing the tree what amazing use its fruit has been put to.
Then there’s a brief chant, which goes something like “here’s to thee, old apple tree, That blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An’ all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!” and they’re off to another orchard.
Wassailing is also the act of going from house to house and demanding hospitality – wassail, presumably – as a kind of grown-up version of Hallowe’en. The Lord of the manor would provide a certain amount of refreshments and people would carouse about the village, singing festive songs and generally mingling. There was even a wassail bowl, to put your wassail in.
Of course, things could turn nasty, with small gangs arriving on your doorstep, demanding hot booze. But nowadays, through the healing veil of time, it’s all become confused with general carol singing. Wassail itself, if it is mentioned at all, has become any mulled alcohol with fruit in it. The toast is less common, unless used by cider-farming wassailers.
And the songs about wassailing linger on. Again, there are many regional varieties. Here’s Blur (yes, THAT Blur) singing a version of “The Gloucester Wassail,” more commonly known as “The Wassailing Song,” a rare recording from 1992.
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