23 Aug 2014
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Origins of the Wassail

Traditions, carols, and beverages we know very little about.

Origins of the Wassail

 

Every Christmas season, the invites all members to its annual Wassail Party. This year at the party, I asked several people about the origin of the term wassail, and none were really sure. All of course seemed familiar with “Here We Come A-wassailing” the English traditional Christmas carol and New Years song, composed circa 1850. The old English wassail song refers to "wassailing", or singing carols door-to-door wishing good health, while the a- is an archaic intensifying prefix; compare lyrics to The Twelve Days of Christmas (e.g., "Six geese a-laying").

The word wassail refers to several related traditions; first and foremost wassailing is an ancient southern English tradition that is performed with the intention of ensuring a good crop of cider apples for the next year's harvest. It also refers to both the salute "Waes Hail", the term itself is a contraction of the Middle English phrase wæs hæl, meaning literally "good health" or "be you healthy" and to the drink of wassail which is a hot mulled cider traditionally drunk as an integral part of the wassail ceremony.

In the cider-producing counties in the South West of England, wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive. The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn. The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and a processional tune to be played and sung from one orchard to the next, the wassail Queen will then be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she will place toast soaked in Wassail from a clay cup as a gift to the tree spirits and to show the fruits created the previous year.

The word wassail is also a hot beverage or mulled punch often associated with Yuletide. Historically, the drink was a mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toast.

Hence the first stanza of the traditional carol the  Gloucestershire Wassail dating back to the  Middle Ages:

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.

At Carhampton, in southwestern England, the Apple Orchard Wassailing is held on the Old Twelfth Night (17 January) as a ritual to ask God for a good apple harvest. The villagers from a circle around the largest apple tree, hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the 'good spirits' of the tree. A shotgun is fired overhead to scare away evil spirits.

Modern recipes tend more often to be served cold and begin with a base of wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale, sometimes with brandy or sherry added. Apples or oranges are often added to the mix. While the beverage typically served as "wassail" at modern holiday feasts with a medieval theme most closely resembles mulled cider, historical wassail drinks were completely different, more likely to be mulled beer or mead. The historical society beverage resembles this but the secret recipe is kept guarded by a few members.

And so this year, when we gathered around the punch bowls (spiked and regular), we toasted our friendships and wished each other health and blessings for the coming year. By the way, again this year, no shotguns were fired.

 

Information gathered for this story from Wikipedia.

 

Recipes

Gloucestershire Wassail

Wassailing at Colonial Williamsburg

NPR story about Wassail

Cheers for the Apple Tree

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