According to the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.), the word "wassail" was originally derived from the Old Norse "ves heill,"meaning "be thou hail" or "be though healthy." Over time, the expression was modified to become the Middle English"waeshaeil," and finally to the current English word "wassail."
Wassailing is the English custom of going door-to-door singing songs (or carols), accompanied by a large wooden bowl called a "wassail bowl" from which they drink to the health of those whom they visit.
The Waissal Bowl
The wassail bowl, contrary to popular opinion, does not refer only to a bowl filled with ale, wine or other alcoholic beverages. In most cases, a garlanded or be-ribboned bowl contained a mixture of apples, sugar, spices AND hot beer or ale. Sometimes the bowl even contained bits of toast and roasted crabs! The resultant liquid was generally nut-brown in color.
Generally, each member of the group traveling around with the bowl contributed one or more ingredients. The belief was that "All who put something into the communal bowl likewise will draw something marvelous out when they drink their draft of it."
In more modern times, a wassail drink is often prepared in advance for a Christmas celebration for friends an family, and the custom of drinking out of a common cup or bowl has given way to each person having their own bowl or cup.
Traditional "wassailing songs" all subscribe to the main theme of wishing good health to everything and everybody! Wassailing songs are among the most popular of the secular holiday songs of Christmas. Among the most popular of wassailing songs begins:
Here we come a wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wandering
So fair to be seen
(In the United States, this song usual begins with "Here we come a caroling.")
Rather than being considered "begging," this ritual was more of a type of gifting. This point is made in the song "Here We Come A-Wassailing", when the wassailers inform the manor lord that:
"We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door
But we are friendly neighbours
Whom you have seen before."
Then, as seen in the next verse of the song, the lord would then provide the peasants with food and drink in return for their blessings upon his house:
"Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year"
Another English carol - "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" - which originated in sixteenth century England. Again, the song refers to a time when the well-to-do (the "Merry Gentlemen") would give Christmas treats, such as "figgy pudding" and "good cheer" (the wassail beverage) to the carolers.
Now that you know the history of wassailing, you have a great new activity to add to your holiday traditions!