Wassailing is the remnants of an older pagan tradition where groups toasted, gave offerings to, honored, implored, and sometimes threatened their apple trees for a bounty of fruit in the coming year. It later became associated with the Christian Christmas celebration sometime around the 1400's.
Image source: Legendary Dartmoor
Hymns and Carols says that, "The word 'wassail' comes from the Old English "Waes hael" — that is, "Good Health!" The correct response was "Drinc hael."
"...mention of "used in pledging" is especially interesting. William Sandys, in his 1853 work Christmas-tide includes the following passages which bear on this theme:
The wassail bowl, of which the skull of an enemy would thus appear to have formed their beau idéal, is said to have been introduced by them. Rowena, the fair daughter of Hengist, presenting the British king, Vortigern, with a bowl of wine, and saluting him with “Lord King Wass-heil;” to which he answered, as he was directed, “Drine heile,” and saluted her then after his fashion, being much smitten with her charms. The purpose of father and daughter was obtained; the king married the fair cup-bearer, and the Saxons obtained what they required of him.
This is said to have been the first wassail in this land; but, as it is evident that the form of salutation was previously known, the custom must have been much older among the Saxons; and, indeed, in one of the histories, a knight, who acts as a sort of interpreter between Rowena and the king, explains it to be an old custom among them.
By some accounts, however, the Britons are said themselves to have had their wassail bowl, or lamb’s wool — La Mas Ubhal, or day of apple fruit — as far back as the third century, made of ale, sugar (whatever their sugar was), toast and roasted crabbs, hissing in the bowl; to which, in later times, nutmeg was added.
The followers of Odin and Thor drank largely in honor of their pagan deities; and, when converted, still continued their potations, but in honor of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and Saints; and the early missionaries were obliged to submit to this substitution, being unable to abolish the practice, which afterwards degenerated into drinking healths of other people, to the great detriment of our own. Strange! that even from the earliest ages, the cup-bearer should be one of the principal officers in the royal presence, and that some of the high families take their name from a similar office..."
In Saxon and Viking times cupbearers were usually the highest ranking women of a House, a position of honor and esteem. But back to wassailing!
Wassailing the trees occured on old "twelfth night", the 12th night after Christmas eve, or January 17th on the old calendar. Obviously traditions varied, but in Devonshire, Herefordshire and in other parts of the West Country of England (as well as elsewhere no doubt) families would hold a feast with cakes, cider and in some areas beer and ale too. After a time of eating and drinking everyone trooped out to the orchard to wassail the trees, and wake them up from winter for the coming season as well as scare off any bad energy, spirits or demons .
Ale, beer or cider soaked toast, in some areas special cakes, would be placed in the tree branches or in a fork of the tree, and then be splashed with more cider. Trees might be beaten with sticks, pounded on, pots and pans clanged, and in appropriate eras, guns that had been loaded with just powder (no shot) would be fired at the trees.
Image source: Gutenburg.org
While this went on, others in the group bowed their heads and sang the special "wassail song".
Old apple tree, we'll wassail thee
And hoping thou wilt bear
The Lord does know where we shall be
To be merry another year.
To blow well and to bear well
And so merry let us be
Let every man drink up his cup
And health to the old apple tree
(Spoken)Apples now, hat-fulls, three bushel bag-fulls,
tallets ole-fulls, barn's floor-fulls,
little heap under the stairs
Hip Hip Hooroo (3 times)
(From Folk info.org and also you'll find at this link, associated sheet music as well as a midi of the tune.)
Often during or after the spoken part above, a full bag would be symbolically hoisted over the shoulder 3 times as well to represent the expected bumper crop.
Image Source: Stuart King
In other traditions it was just the men if the village who went out to orchards, then traveled tree to tree with a "wassail bowl" and alternately serenaded and threatened trees. They danced, sang, drank cider or the like, and again trees were either shot at or threatened with axes if they didn't produce well in the coming year.
The men would later return home and feast with the women and children. In some areas the returning men would actually be barred from the home, until they guessed what delicious tidbit was cooking on the spit!
Here's a A Traditional Shropshire Wassail Recipe – for hardened Wassailers! From History.uk.com
10 very small apples
1 large orange stuck with whole cloves
10 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bottles dry sherry or dry Madeira
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cloves 3 allspice berries 2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
2 cups castor sugar
12 to 20 pints of cider according to the number of guests
1 cup (or as much as you like) brandy
Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and cover the bottom with 1/8-inch of water.
Insert cloves into the orange about 1/2" apart. Bake the orange with the apples in a 350° oven. After about 30 minutes, remove the orange and puncture it in several places with a fork or an ice pick.
Combine the sherry or Madeira, cider, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar, apple and orange juice and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat slowly without letting the mixture come to a boil. Leave on very low heat. Strain the wine mixture and add the brandy.
Pour into a metal punch bowl, float the apples and orange on top and ladle hot into punch cups.
Makes enough for 15-20 people – but we always wish we had made more!
Here's another song variation from Hymns and Carols that might have been sung after emptying the wassail bowl.
“Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow
Hats full! caps full!
And my pockets full, too, huzza!
According to Hymns and Carols account of wassailing, "It is supposed that the custom was a relic of the sacrifice to Pomona... [the Roman Goddess of Fruits]"
Later wassailing turned into more "luck" visits than wassailing the trees. That is people imbibed heartily and then went door to door wassailing.
Songs for this purpose included:
Good master and mistress,
While you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children,
Who are wandering in the mire.
From: Hymns and Carols
So there we have the "when we go wassailing" variety.
At any rate, here at Seven Trees, we're very interested in taking up some of the traditions of our forebearers. Rather than trying to sort out old calendar date or new, we'll be wassailing our trees on Solstice, or on the night of December 21st this year.
So waes hael, and drinc hael! We'll see you then at our old apple tree...