Wassailing—be healthy at Christmas

Behind the modern rituals of Christmas lurk old traditions tied to our magical, pagan past. Words provide a link to that magic. We have looked at Yule, a word that predates most native languages of Europe. Wassailing is our Christmas word. Wassail arrived in English from the Old Norse salutation ves heill meaning “be healthy” from vesa, to be, and heill, healthy.

The phrase was used in England among the Viking settlers of the North and was taken up by the natives in Old English as waes hael.

It then became a drinking salutation (the response is Drinc hael – drink and be healthy). Then the sense extended to the liquor with which your health was drank.

Lady Macbeth dulled the senses of the chamberlains with “wine and wassail” so that Macbeth could murder Duncan in his sleep.

The vessel for shared drinking of important toasts became the wassailing bowl. Its use has driven the meaning of the word into its Christmas associations.

Wassailing‘s most common meaning is door-to-door Christmas carol singing – a common practice in England. The Christmas wassail is the particular spiced ale or mulled wine drunk on Christmas Eve or Twelfth Night. It is not difficult to guess how the meaning of wassailing shifted from the shared drinking of mulled ale to house-to-house caroling. Warm spicy ale provides a necessary incentive to sing outdoors in the cold northern winter.

Twelfth Night (5 January) marks the end of the Christmas feasting. In the apple-growing areas of south-west England (and in the US), an unusual and distinctly non-Christian ritual is carried out on Old Twelfth Night (17 January), the wassailing of the apple trees. Apple tree wassailing (or apple-howling) was once a magic ceremony. It sought to encourage the benevolent spirits to grant a good crop of apples for the next year’s cider production. Songs were sung to the trees to encourage them:

Apple-tree, apple-tree,
Bear good fruit,
Or down with your top,
And up with your root.

The ceremony start with cider being poured over the roots of the best tree. Cider-soaked toast is placed in the forks as offerings to the good spirits (for the robins). Finally a great noise is made to frighten off the evil spirits including firing shotguns through the branches. All this while much reveling occurs with cider, ale or mulled wine. Not surprisingly the tradition is seeing a current revival in rural England.

The Madrigal Communications team wish you a Merry Christmas with the words of the Yorkshire Wassail:

We’ve been a-while a-wandering
Amongst the leaves so green.
But now we come a wassailing
So plainly to be seen,

For it’s Christmas time, when we travel far and near;
May God bless you and send you a happy New Year.