The Christmas Tradition of Wassailing

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The word “wassail” originates from the Anglo-Saxon “waes hael” which means “to be whole or hale” and the phrase “hale and hearty” comes from this expression.

The origins of the wassail toast

In Saxon, England, it was a greeting shouted by the Lord of the Manor to his assembled household at the start of each new year, and they would reply “drinc hael” (drink and be healthy). His Lordship would then drink from a large wooden bowl (the wassail cup/bowl), before passing it around for everyone to have a taste, from the most senior members down the line.

By Tudor times, peasants and beggars were becoming a nuisance by visiting the big houses of the rich landowners, begging for food and drink to fill their wassailing bowls.

Other wassailing traditions

The original pagan wassailing ceremony, carried out just after the shortest day of the winter solstice, was in honor of the sun and to encourage a healthy harvest of fruit in the following year.

At Christmastime, the wassailers would also carry out a procession in the apple orchards on the Twelfth Night, to bless the trees, for a good crop the coming year, most commonly in the counties of Kent and West of England. They carried a wassailing bowl, full of mulled cider with apples and eggs, to be poured on the roots of the apple trees. They would then make as much noise as possible by shouting and banging, to ward off evil spirits, before heading home for a serious night of drinking.

As time went by, wassailing became more a celebration of Christmas with wassailers going from house to house, singing and sharing drinks from the wassailing cup.

Mulled Cider Wassail

1 gallon apple cider, 8 cinnamon sticks (3 inches long), 4 apples, studded with cloves, 10 allspice berries

In a large saucepan, combine cider, cinnamon sticks, apples, and allspice berries. Simmer for 30-40 minutes. Serve hot. Makes 32 servings

The changes in the wassailing tradition over the years

The practice of wassailing virtually disappeared under the Puritans but was revived again in a different form, by the Victorians, who converted the custom into the popular practice of caroling from door to door. However, the original practice of wassailing the trees is still carried out by a very small number of people in some parts of England.

From a drink to a wassailing ceremony, to a heartily-sung song, wassailing has had an interesting history.