Wassailing through History
By Robert Doares
As traditional and familiar as most any English Christmas carol, the song is among the season's more anachronistic, an evocation of a holiday custom that pretty much puzzles modern celebrants: wassailing.
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.
Wassailing? What's wassailing?
The term has evolved in English for more than a millennium, from its origins as a simple greeting, to its use as a toast in ritualized drinking, to its absorption into holiday customs rooted in notions of social propriety and the intentional suspension thereof.
The text of the carol employs noun and verb forms of “wassail,” a word derived from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál and meaning “be in good health” or “be fortunate.” The phrase found first use as a simple greeting, but the Danish-speaking inhabitants of England seem to have turned was hail, and the reply drink hail, into a drinking formula adopted widely by the indigenous population of England—so much so that the Norman conquerors who arrived in the eleventh century regarded the toast as distinctive of the English natives.
“Wassail” appears in English literature as a salute as early as the eighth-century poem Beowulf, in references such as “warriors' wassail and words of power” and:
The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.
Recording similar usage, the anonymous Anglo-Norman Poet, who witnessed the Saxon toasting cry before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, wrote:
Rejoice and wassail
Pass the bottle and drink healthy
Drink backwards and drink to me
Drink half and drink empty.
A story told in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, purports to explain the origin of the toast:
While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl's face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is 'drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”
Wassail also denoted the drink used for the toast. Rowena's—Renwein in English—spiced wine resembled the ancient Roman hypocras, which survived into the early Middle Ages as a libation for the wealthy. The necessity of importing the wine and such spices as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg from outside England made it dear. When fine ales replaced the wine, more people could afford it, and recipes varied according to the means of each family. Though usually prepared for immediate consumption, wassail sometimes was bottled and allowed to ferment.
In one form of wassail, called Lamb's Wool, ale or dark beer was whipped to form a surface froth in which floated roasted crab apples. The hissing pulp bursting from them resembled wool. Shakespeare alluded to Lamb's Wool in Midsummer Night's Dream:
Sometimes lurk I in the gossip's bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And down her withered dewlap pours the ale.
Likewise in Love's Labour's Lost:
When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit,
Tu-who—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
The first mention of a wassail bowl was in the thirteenth century, a vessel in which revelers dipped cakes and fine bread. The practice of floating crisps of bread in the wassail bowl gave rise to our use of "toast" as a drinking salutation. Craftsmen fashioned the wassail bowl from materials that could withstand heavy use, such as wood or pewter. The very wealthy sometimes had them crafted in precious metals or carved from decorative stone.
A fourteenth-century retelling of the story of King Vortigern and Renwein portrayed people drinking alternately from the same cup. The leader of a gathering took the bowl, said "Wassail!" and the assemblage said "Drink hail!" He passed the bowl to another person with a kiss, and each guest repeated the actions. The practice survived into the Renaissance. At the Tudor court, the chief officers of the household ceremoniously accompanied the bowl into the monarch's presence.
In parts of Medieval Britain, a different sort of wassailing emerged: farmers wassailed their crops and animals to encourage fertility. An observer recorded, "They go into the Ox-house to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to their health." The practice continued into the eighteenth century, when farmers in the west of Britain toasted the good health of apple trees to promote an abundant crop the next year. Some placed cider-soaked bread in the branches to ward off evil spirits. In other locales, villagers splashed the trees with cider while firing guns or beating pots and pans. Sometimes they sang special songs:
Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to th'old apple tree
Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear.
By about 1600, the practice of taking a wassail bowl about the streets had taken root. Instead of consuming the punch-like concoction at home, wassailers went house to house offering a warm drink, sometimes expecting payment. A late seventeenth-century commentator wrote, "Wenches ...by their Wassels at New-years-tide ...present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys." In some places girls trimmed the bowl with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary and carried it round the streets while singing carols. A song of the period runs:
Wassail, wassail, out of the milk pail,
Wassail, wassail, as white as my nail,
Wassail, wassail, in snow, frost and hail,
Wassail, wassail, that much doth avail,
Wassail, wassail, that never will fail.
It didn't take long for wassailing in expectation of recompense to merge with other manifestations of holiday "misrule" that characterized old English Christmas—an inheritance from the ancient Romans. As at the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, at Christmastide the Anglo-Saxons turned normal social relationships symbolically and temporarily upside down. Men and women might cross-dress and act the part of the opposite sex, school boys bar out their teachers, or a peasant be named "Lord of Misrule." The wealthy were expected to share their bounty with poorer villagers and servants. One manifestation of this, the tipping of servants—called "boxing" after the clay boxes with money slits English servants once used or their collections—found its way to colonial America. English and Canadian calendars still mark Boxing Day as December 26, the traditional feast day of St. Stephen, and the concept survives wherever an employer gives a Christmas bonus or when we tip at the holiday those who render us services throughout the year.
At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions. In exchange, the lord of the manor had the goodwill of his people for another year. At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth:
Again we assemble, a merry New Year
To wish each one of the family here....
May they of potatoes and herrings have plenty,
With butter and cheese, and each other dainty.
Not every song, however, expressed unreserved goodwill. Some conveyed threats of reprisals for bad treatment, a sentiment like the trick-or-treat of Halloween:
We have come to claim our right....
And if you don't open up your door,
We'll lay you flat upon the floor.
The disorder of such holiday misrule gave concern to the Puritan fathers of New England, who attempted to thwart the transplantation of English Christmas to America. The Puritan Parliament outlawed the celebration in England during the 1640s and 1650s. Similar laws held sway in New England long after restoration of the monarchy in 1660 reestablished Christmas in the mother country. The Puritans chafed under the early church's decision to capitalize on the preexistence of the pagan Saturnalia in selecting December 25 as the date for Christmas. Even sixteenth-century English bishop Hugh Latimer, whose Protestant Church of England kept Christmas, said that "Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides."
Boston divine Cotton Mather wrote in 1712 that the "Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty ...by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling. . . ." Christmas caroling was condemned, as well, since it occurred in parallel with these other acts. In Massachusetts, seafaring communities like Nantucket and the town of Marblehead continued particularly notorious celebrations, despite officials' best efforts to quash Christmas observance throughout the colony.
Historian Stephen Nissenbaum recounts an instance of Christmas keeping in seventeenth-century Massachusetts as an example of a wassailing gone very bad. On Christmas night of 1679, four young men of the village of Salem entered the house of septuagenarian John Rowden, who was known to make pear wine, called "perry," from trees in his orchard. The men made themselves at home in front of the fire and began to sing. After a couple of songs they tried to cajole Rowden and his wife into bringing them some of the new wine. Rowden refused and asked the intruders to leave, to which they responded that "it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and to drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went."
When the visitors promised to return later and pay for the drink, Mrs. Rowden said, "We keep no ordinary to call for pots." By "ordinary" she meant tavern, and by "pots" she meant alcohol. The four men left, but three returned a quarter-hour later and tried to pass a piece of lead as payment in coin. The Rowdens and their adopted son, Daniel Poole, got the men out the front door, but they wouldn't leave and called sarcastic taunts from the street. John Rowden later testified to the violence that broke out next:
They threw stones, bones, and other things at Poole in the doorway and against the house. They beat down much of the daubing in several places and continued to throw stones for an hour and a half with little intermission. They also broke down about a pole and a half of fence, being stone wall, and a cellar, without the house, distant about four or five rods, was broken open through the door, and five or six pecks of apples were stolen.
No exchange of gifts and goodwill there.
More than a century later, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, shopkeeper John Birge noted in his account book the arrival of "Nightwalkers—or rather blockheads" at his establishment about 2 o'clock in the morning on December 22, 1794. Birge refused to open up. The "wassailers" seem to have gained entry by breaking a windowpane and perhaps carried away food and clothing. Birge said, "I cannot see why it was much better than Burglary."
Practices embodying the idea of wassailing continued into the nineteenth century, and other wassail-like drinks, especially eggnog, gained popularity. In the 1820s, American novelist Washington Irving did much to fix an idealized view of old English Christmas, complete with wassailing, in the minds of his readers. In England, the works of Charles Dickens portrayed continued gatherings around the wassail bowl. In Victorian times, caroling came into its own, distanced from its context of alcohol consumption and rowdiness. Rituals akin to wassailing survived in the nineteenth-century American South. One was the holiday celebration of "John Canoe" as practiced by African slaves in the Caribbean islands and brought to early coastal North Carolina. Though the origin of the name or its variants, such as Junkanoo or John Kooner, is unclear, some say it recalled a legendary African prince and slave trader. During Christmastide, bands of young black men in bizarre costumes played music and marched from place to place, accosting whites and sometimes entering their houses. In return for performing dances they received money or whisky. John Canoe is practiced in the West Indies, particularly in Jamaica, today.
Throughout the slave South, where old English customs died hard, the Christmas season took on a carnival atmosphere. Southerners documented in their letters and diaries the heavy drinking by whites and blacks. Former slaves like Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass wrote about Christmas as a time when masters released their human chattel from work but degraded them by encouraging drunkenness. In Virginia, in 1845, the wife of former President John Tyler wrote that their slaves "had given themselves up completely to their kind of happiness—drinking, with nothing on earth to do."
Slaves at Christmas expected, like the poor of old England, gifts of clothing, food, drink, and other commodities from their masters. Like English country squires, some planters opened their homes for the day as the setting for presenting these tokens and receiving the homage and greetings of their slaves. Liberation of the slaves at the end of the Civil War made the question of whether to continue these traditional exchanges a topic of public and private concern across the defeated South as Christmas of 1865 approached.
Elements of wassailing, like begging door to door, survived unbroken into the early twentieth century in Britain and America. Older residents of the Big Apple will remember that on New Year's Day in the 1930s and 1940s, some New York City children dressed in ragged clothing and dirtied their faces to ring doorbells and ask for pennies. By that time, drink, considered inappropriate for children, no longer played a role in the ritual.
Though rural folk in a few places in Britain keep wassailing practices alive today, it's mostly a matter of self-conscious preservation of a virtually extinct tradition. And as with just about everything else in our time, the Internet serves as a mouthpiece for twenty-first-century revivalists around the world, who promote the reinterpretation of wassailing traditions at holiday festivals—or wherever two or three are gathered round a Christmas punch bowl.
This article was originally published in the Holiday 2006 edition of the “Colonial Williamsburg” journal. Robert Doares is an instructor in Colonial Williamsburg's department of interpretive training.