All Hail the Wassail: Explanation of this New Year Tradition

‘Love and joy come to you,
and to you, your wassail too;
and God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.’

If you have never given any thought to what the wassail is, read on. And why not join in a local wassailing ceremony (see dates below)?

What is Wassail?

Wassail comes from the Anglo Saxon toast waes hael – meaning ‘be well’ or ‘be in good health’

The Wassail is a festivity or revel with the drinking of liquor and wishing good health to others on festive occasions. The traditional drink is also called wassail and the revellers are called wassailers.

According to Historic UK.comAnglo Saxon tradition dictated that the lord of the manor should start each new year by greeting the assembled throng with the toast waes hael. The lord’s followers would reply ‘drink hael’ or ‘drink well’, thus beginning the new year with some liberal libations. It’s quite possible that such celebrations went on for some years before Christianity began to spread throughout Britain from around 600 onwards.

The festivity was usually on Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night – the feast of Epiphany (5 January). Yet traditionalists insist on ‘Old Twelvey’ (17 January) as the correct date for wassail celebrations because it was the wassail date before the Gregorian calendar came along in 1752 and messed everything up.

What’s in the Wassail?

The ingredients varied depending where in the country you lived. But it tended to contain a warmed ale, wine or cider blended with spices, honey and maybe a couple of eggs. They served this unappealing (to me at least) drink in one huge bowl (the wassail bowl – obvs) and passed it from person to person accompanied by the traditional wassail greeting.

Type of Wassailing

Oh yes – there’s more than one way to wassail! Though both involve imbibing. There are in fact two distinct variations:

1. Groups of merrymakers went from house to house with the wassail bowl singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. Though I can’t help but wonder if, by the time they’d imbibed from the wassail bowl a few times they might have been more troublemakers than merry makers?

2. The second form of wassailing tends to be a country practice, in fruit-growing regions in particular, where the wassail blesses the tress.

As with the ingredients of the drink, the form of such country celebrations vary. But common to them all is a Wassail King and Queen who lead the revellers in noisy procession through all the orchards. In each one, the wassailers gather around the biggest and best tree. Then, as a gift to the spirits, the Queen places a wassail-soaked piece of toast into its branches accompanied by such songs as:

 “Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”

The wassailers then move on to the next orchard, singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and making as much noise as possible to both waken the sleeping tree spirits and to frighten off any evil demons lurking in the branches.

Read more here, on the British Food History website.


Angela Atkinson
Born Again Swindonian blogger

Local Wassails

Wassail at Discovery Centre, Thatcham – Sun 12 Jan

Hungerford Wassail venue tbd – Sun 19 Jan


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