Saturday, December 15, 2007

Wasssail, Wassailing

Wassail (pronounced wossayl or woss’l)
(the following definition is from Wikipedia)

[1] is a hot, spiced punch often associated with winter celebrations of northern Europe, usually those connected with holidays such as Christmas, New Year's and Twelfth Night. Particularly popular in Germanic countries, the term itself is a contraction of the Old English toast wæs þu hæl, or "be thou hale!" (i.e., "be in good health"). Alternate expressions predating the term, with approximately the same meaning, include both the Old Norse ves heill and Old English wæs hāl.


Wassailing is the practice of going door-to-door singing Christmas carols until paid to go away and leave the occupants in peace. In modern times it is most commonly known through reference in various traditional Christmas carols (e.g., "Here we come a-wassailing / among the leaves so green"). The term also refers to the practice of singing to trees in apple orchards in cider-producing regions of England.

Origins of wassailing

Some scholars prefer a pre-Christian explanation of the old traditional ceremony of wassailing. How far the tradition dates back is unknown but it has undeniable connections with Heathen ritual. Of recent times the word Wassail (from the Anglo-Saxon toast wæs þu hæl, "be thou hale" — i.e., "be in good health") has come to be synonymous with Christmas. The word wassail is old English and so dates from before 1066. Christmas was not celebrated anywhere before the third century, and only gradually moved northwards through Europe. Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas day 800. It was probably the Normans who brought the celebration to England. Many sources claim that William was crowned king of England on Christmas day 1066. However if you check the words of the Anglo-Saxon Cronicles (see reference below), it was described as "childer-mass day", Holy Innocents Day, or 28th December. Therefore the tradition of wassailing outdates the celebration of Christmas. Trolley the Wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night (6th January). However most people insist on wassailing on 'Old Twelvey Night' (17th January) as that would have been the correct date before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.

The practice has its roots in the middle ages as a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from begging. This point is made in the song "Here We Come A-Wassailing", when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that
"we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before."
The lord of the manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, i.e...
"Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year"
... which would be given in the form of the song being sung. Wassailing is the background practice against which a carol such as "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" can be made sense of.

Although wassailing is often described in innocuous and sometimes nostalgic terms, the practice has not always been considered so innocent. In fact in early New England wassailing was associated with rowdy bands of young men who would enter the homes of wealthy neighbors and demand free food and drink in a trick-or-treat fashion. If the householder refused, he was usually cursed, and occasionally his house was vandalized.

The example of the exchange is seen in their demand for "figgy pudding" and "good cheer", i.e., the wassail beverage, without which the wassailers in the song will not leave, "we won't go until we get some."