Wassailing began as an Anglo-Saxon tradition in early England before Christianity ever reached the island nation. Tradition states that at the beginning of the new year, the lord of a manor would make a toast of “waes hael’, or “be in good health”, to which the gathered people would reply “drink hael”, or “drink well” after which the toast would be drunk. Usually the toasting beverage would be served in one large bowl and passed along from one celebrant to the next along with the traditional greeting.
The word hael has the same origin as the word “hale”, meaning “to be well; robust; vigorous,” or in good health.
In later days, and once Christianity reached Britain, wassailing was taken on as part of the Christmas celebrations. Traditionally, wassailing would take place on January 6th, or Twelfth Night.
During the Middle Ages, wassailers would go from house to house with a wassail bowl full of drink. The wassailers would sing traditional carols and spread wishes of good health and cheer. This was also a way for estate owners and lords to bestow charity in the form of money and food to those who served and lived on his land. They in turn would bestow blessings and good wishes, as the song says:
“Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God bless you and send you
A happy New Year.”
Wassailing continued to evolve over the centuries until it more closely resembled the caroling we know today. Groups of people would go from door to door singing Christmas carols and spreading good cheer and holiday wishes in return for food and drink (almost like trick-or-treating).
One other ancient wassailing custom that is still practiced today involves drinking and singing to the health of fruit trees. A procession that includes a “king” and “queen” moves from one orchard to the next to gather around the biggest tree, singing and spilling wassail-soaked toast into the roots as a gift to the tree spirits for a good harvest. The revelers may also bang pots and pans to wake the good spirts and frighten off the bad. This ancient tradition has become a large and storied procession in the English counties of Somerset, Devon, Herefordshire, Kent, and Sussex.
One of the important parts of wassailing was the actual wassail drink itself. There is no definitive recipe for the early drink that was passed around in bowls during the time of the Anglo-Saxons. However, ingredients could include mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, sweetener of some sort, and traditional spices such as cloves, ginger, and nutmeg.
During the Middle Ages to the Victorian age, the drink consisted of whatever the owners of the home had at-hand, such as ale, cider, and warm wine.
Today, there are both alcoholic and non-alcoholic version of wassail, and many people have their own recipe. Some include mulled wine, others mulled cider. Spices such as cloves, juniper berries, cinnamon, and even apples and oranges are common additions.
Maybe you’ll want to add wassailing to your holiday traditions!