Fortuitously, wassailing was the subject of the ‘Early Music Show’ in BBC Radio 3 on 28 December, so I have benefited from the wisdom of Lucie Skeaping and others as well as that of the estimable William Husk, editor of Songs of the Nativity, in offering this handy guide.
‘Wassail’, from Old Norse, is a toast: ‘your health’, to which the answer is ‘drinc hael’: ‘I drink to your health.’ A toast is a piece of toasted bread put into a drink as a sop which you could eat but might also act as a filter for the solid matter in the bottom of the cup/glass/goblet. If you toast someone, you raise your cup/glass/goblet with the toast in it to him/her and say ‘Wassail!’ (‘Sops in wine’, by the way, is the sixteenth-century name for the red-and-white pink (Dianthus): a white flower steeped in red wine.)
Wassailing was originally a pagan practice: not merely drinking peoples’ health, but ensuring the fertility of fruit trees by offering them mulled cider, and hanging pieces of the toast in the branches. Local variations included having a Wassail King and Queen, the Queen being hoisted into the branches to put the toast in place; or the smallest boy in the crowd, called the ‘Tom Tit’, did it. A rather sentimental idea is that the alcohol-drenched toast was for the robin, a friendly spirit which would protect the trees (when it recovered from its hangover). Sometimes guns were fired through the bare apple branches, or firecrackers let off, to ward off evil spirits.
In 1577 there was an edict against wassailing – superstitious practices believed to encourage good apple crop in the following year were banned: though in spite of this and later Puritan objections the custom was maintained in the traditional apple-growing areas of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. A popular festival today is that held on 17 January (Twelfth Night in the old calendar) at Carhampton near Minehead in Somerset, but it seems to have been (re?)started in the 1930s by a local cider company …
Wassailing as singing from house to house rather than in the apple orchard seems to have been the forerunner of carol-singing: the point was made in the radio programme that in the bleak midwinter, there was not much for agricultural workers to do, and they didn’t get paid if they weren’t working, so singing around the village might raise some money, but they wanted to emphasise that ‘We are not daily beggars who beg from door to door/ But we are neighbours’ children who you have seen before.’
Some of the wassail carols are sung as by girls (‘Good dame, here at your door,/ Our Wassail we begin,/ We are all maidens poor,/ We now pray let us in/ With our Wassail’).
Others seem to have involved rather more boisterous bands of men: ‘Be here any maids? I suppose there be some –/ Sure they’ll not let young men stand on the cold stone;/ Sing hey, O maids, come troll back the pin,/ And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.’ This one, the Gloucestershire wassailers’ carol, was communicated to John Brand by one Samuel Lysons in the 1790s: the names of the animals toasted in it – Dobbin the horse, Smiler the mare, Fillpail the cow – can be filled in as appropriate to the individual household.
(Having referred to ‘one Samuel Lysons’, I looked him up: another extraordinary story. In brief: 1763–1819; from a family of Gloucestershire parsons and antiquaries: studied law desultorily; taken up by Sir Joseph Banks, introduced to the Royal Family, with whom he became a favourite; knew Johnson, Piozzi et al.; became keeper of the archives of the Tower of London, which apparently were in dire need of sorting out; field archaeologist who worked at Woodchester, Bignor and Bath; fellow and vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries; fellow and vice-president of the Royal Society.)
This type of wassailing is quite rustic, but there is an account (given by Husk and also cited on the radio) of Christmas chez Henry VII (not someone you usually think of as a party animal) which involves the chappell [chapel choir?] standing on one side of the hall, ‘and when the Steward cometh in at the Hall-dore with the Wassell, he must crie three tymes, ‘Wassell, Wassell, Wassell’; and then the chappell to answere with a good song’.
And in the following century, Robert Herrick was adding a sophisticated spin to the traditional wassailing toasts: ‘Next, may your dairies prosper so,/ As that your pans no ebb may know;/ But if they do, the more to flow:/ Like to a solemn sober stream,/ Banked all with lilies; and the cream/ Of sweetest cowslips filling them.’
So you have the choice: you can go and throw toast at a local apple tree, or bang on your neighbours’ doors with raucous songs and a jug of mulled cider. Either way, have a very happy new year!