Wassailing, Old Tradition Made New

Wassailing – Traditions Then And Now

What a busy time of year. Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yuletide, St. Nicolas, Santa Claus, Wassailing...

Hold on a quick New York second. Wassailing? That goofy word that no one knows how to pronounce; that's in an obscure Christmas carol that no one sings, because no one knows what it is?

Yes. That's the one.

Wassailing – Wassail.

The wonder of languages. The words "Wassailing – Wassail" are inspiring. Who amongst us gets the chance to say "wassail" often enough?

For the delight of a linguistics person, wassail is a noun, a verb, and even a salutation. It doesn't get better than that.

Wordsmith has this to share:



MEANING: Verb transitive: To toast.
Verb intransitive: To go from house to house singing carols at Christmas.
Noun:  1. A toast to someone's health.
2. A festivity with much drinking.
3. A drink for toasting, especially spiced ale.
4. The singing of Christmas carols going from house to house.

ETYMOLOGY: The word Wassail is thought to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl – or "be thou hale" (healthy). Earliest documented use: 1275. The Anglo-Saxon derived from Old Norse ves heill – or "be well" in which case, wassailing likely predates the Norman conquest in 1066.

It was a Saxon custom that, at the start of each year, the lord of the manor would shout "waes hael." The assembled crowd would reply "drinc hael" - meaning "drink and be healthy." 

What Is Wassailing?

Wassailing has been associated with both Christmas and New Year's celebrations. It was a way of passing on good wishes among family and friends. It was also an ancient ceremony that involved singing and drinking to the health of trees.

Wikipedia informs us:

The tradition of wassailing falls into two distinct categories: The House-Visiting wassail and the Orchard-Visiting wassail. The House-Visiting wassail, caroling by another name, is the practice of people going door-to-door singing Christmas carols.

The Orchard-Visiting wassail refers to the ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions of England, reciting incantations and singing to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.
Steeped in history, wassailing is traditionally held on the Twelfth Night after Christmas and performed in orchards to awaken the apple trees from their winter slumber and ward off bad spirits.

Trees are precious and they deserve some much-needed recognition. We are more than happy to gather 'round and dance and toast to their health.

It also shows how we used to be more connected to nature and cognizant of our foods and from whence they came. Somehow going into the supermarket and singing to the produce aisles to ensure full shelves for next year doesn’t have the same appeal.

The Beverley Guardian tells us in their article Days Lengthen, Cold Strengthens:

Wassailing used to be carried out throughout England with other trees such as pear, plum, or cobnut. Cows and oxen used to be wassailed too for the same reason, to bring luck and encourage good health in the coming year.

Wassailing may have continued for some die-hards in our beloved merry ol' England, but for the rest of us across the pond, it didn't get much press. Until now.

Wassailing is making a comeback. More and more, people are including a wassail drink or a wassailing festival for the trees in their celebrations.

A Wassailing Song

The Wassail Song of today is a traditional English Christmas carol.

For our musicians: the verses are in 6/8 time which bounces us along; then the chorus steps in, as smooth as glass, when it switches to 2/2 time. This contrast provides captivating musical interest.

The image above is an example of the printed sheet music.

In 1902 Elder and Shepard published a series of six Christmas carols on single sheets (one of them, The Wassail Song, pictured above). The artwork is by Harold M. Sichel, who was one of Elder’s favorite art contributors.

Of particular interest in the printing is the choice of font that uses the sharp S for the double "ss" as well as the older "s." The scharfes S "ß" (sharp S) is commonly used in German, however, it's also possible to see a long-s short-s ligature (ß) in English texts from the 15th and 16th centuries. Here, it makes for a nice antique effect.

Here We Come A-Wassailing

For an intricate version of the song with rich harmonies, we have The King's Singers from their album, A Little Christmas Music. Be sure to take a listen.

Bring TRT® To Your Festivities

Students of The Radiance Technique® (TRT®) can use this supportive technique with all their traditions and holiday activities. Use of TRT® hands-on while participating in events brings greater Light to your celebrations and expands the qualities of loving.

You can use TRT® hands-on while studying history. It helps provide a sense of the deeper energies of those times. Discover more about how you can consciously integrate the universal energy of TRT® into your study of history in an expansion class with an Authorized Instructor of TRT®.

The Wassail Drink

To have a proper Wassail event, you need to have a Wassail drink.

In days of yore, you'd find an ale-based drink flavored with spices and honey. 

Ancient Wassail also had cream and egg whites beaten into it, making for a curdling or frothing that looked like the white wool of a lamb. Hence, it also came to be known as Lambswool – a mixture of hot ale, spices, sugar, breadcrumbs and roasted apples into which beaten eggs and cream were stirred.

To our ancestors, Lambswool was quite delectable. It could be argued it is the grandfather of our modern eggnog.

Today, however, our modern tastebuds tend not to favor warm beer. And your guests may start packing to leave if you serve them a curdled drink.

Wassail Drink Recipes

A plethora of Wassail recipe choices await you on the internet. You can find Wassails that are non-alcoholic, spiked, some that more closely resemble mulled wine than Wassail and others that stay true to the apple cider base.

Here is one recipe with warmed beer, Traditional Wassail Recipe, and another Wassail recipe that includes the eggs.

Yet another Wassail brew has Calvados as an ingredient. A specialty from Normandy, France, Calvados is an authentic apple brandy.

If you can't find Calvados, you could substitute any quality brandy. In truth, tossing an expensive Calvados in a mixture of several juices is a bit extravagant; you may wish to reserve it for more purist libations.

The Wassail Bowl. by John Gilbert, 1860.

Make Wassailing a Part of Your Traditions

The nice thing about Wassail is that it's not emphatically tied down to a specific date or even whether it is Christmas or New Year's – whichever timing works for you.

Or why not plan for both timings – Christmas for the caroling and January as a pick-me-up after the rush of the holidays? January is a nice time to sing to the trees.

Turn the old tradition of Wassailing into a new one for your family and friends. We should hear a lot more Waes hael and Drinc hael being shouted out around us.

A tradition has to start somewhere, and like they say, there's no time like the present.

Waes Hael – Good Health !