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Wassailing Through The Ages

Origin of the Wassail Toast
A Saxon Toasting Cry
Lamb's Wool
The Wassail Bowl
Wassail Fertility Rituals
Boxing Day
Caroling and Wassail
Wassail Trick or Treat
Season of Misrule
John Canoe
Wassail, What is it? - Wassail Through The Ages - Host Your Own Wassail - Wassail Recipe
Wassail Through The Ages

This is a somewhat scholarly, but in depth article
from about Wassail celebrations
throughout history.

Here it is:

Rings of orange and lemon afloat, the wassail
bowl filled with spiced wine or ale is a tradition
that goes back a thousand years and more.

The term has evolved in English for more than a
millennium, from its origins as a simple greeting,
to its use as a toast in ritualized drinking, to its
absorption into holiday customs rooted in notions
of social propriety and the intentional
suspension thereof.

The text of the carol employs noun and verb
forms of "wassail," a word derived from the Old
Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál and
meaning "be in good health" or "be fortunate."
The phrase found first use as a simple greeting,
but the Danish-speaking inhabitants of England
seem to have turned was hail, and the reply drink
hail, into a drinking formula adopted widely by
the indigenous population of England-so much so
that the Norman conquerors who arrived in the
eleventh century regarded the toast as
distinctive of the English natives.

"Wassail" appears in English literature as a
salute as early as the eighth-century poem
Beowulf, in references such as "warriors'
wassail and words of power" and:

The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.

Recording similar usage, the anonymous Anglo-
Norman Poet, who witnessed the Saxon toasting
cry before the Battle of Hastings in 1066,

Rejoice and wassail
Pass the bottle and drink healthy
Drink backwards and drink to me
Drink half and drink empty.
A story told in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, purports to explain the origin of the toast:

The story of toasting "wassail" begins when Renwein presented King Vortigern with a cup of wine and the salute "Was hail."

While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said "Lavert King, was hail!"

When he saw the girl's face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. "She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is 'drinc hail.'" Vortigern immediately said the words "drinc hail" and ordered Renwein to drink.

Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says "was hail" and he who drinks next says "drinc hail."

Wassail also denoted the drink used for the toast. Rowena's-Renwein in English-spiced wine resembled the ancient Roman hypocras, which survived into the early Middle Ages as a libation for the wealthy. The necessity of importing the wine and such spices as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg from outside England made it dear. When fine ales replaced the wine, more people could afford it, and recipes varied according to the means of each family.
Though usually prepared for immediate
consumption, wassail sometimes was bottled and
allowed to ferment.

In one form of wassail, called Lamb's Wool, ale
or dark beer was whipped to form a surface
froth in which floated roasted crab apples. The
hissing pulp bursting from them resembled wool.
Shakespeare alluded to Lamb's Wool in
Midsummer Night's Dream:

Sometimes lurk I in the gossip's bowl
In very likeness of a roasted crab
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And down her withered dewlap pours the ale.
Likewise in Love's Labour's Lost:
When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit,
Tu-who-a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

The first mention of a wassail bowl was in the
thirteenth century, a vessel in which revelers
dipped cakes and fine bread. The practice of
floating crisps of bread in the wassail bowl gave
rise to our use of "toast" as a drinking
salutation. Craftsmen fashioned the wassail bowl
from materials that could withstand heavy use,
such as wood or pewter. The very wealthy
sometimes had them crafted in precious metals
or carved from decorative stone.

Wassail bowls, generally in the shape of goblets,
have been preserved. The Worshipful Company
of Grocers made a very elaborate one in the
seventeenth century, decorated with silver. It is
so large that it must have passed around as a
"loving cup" so that many members of the guild
could drink from it.

In the British Christmas carol "Wassail, Wassail,
All Over the Town", the singers tell that their
"bowl is made of the white maple tree, with a
wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee".

White maple is a completely flavorless wood,
commonly used even today to make some kitchen
utensils, and likely was what many simple
peasant wassail bowls were made from.
There are surviving examples of "puzzle wassail
bowls", with many spouts. As you attempt to
drink from one of the spouts, you are drenched
from another spout. The drink was either punch,
mulled wine or spicy ale.

A fourteenth-century retelling of the story of
King Vortigern and Renwein portrayed people
drinking alternately from the same cup. The
leader of a gathering took the bowl, said
"Wassail!" and the assemblage said "Drink hail!"
He passed the bowl to another person with a
kiss, and each guest repeated the actions. The
practice survived into the Renaissance. At the
Tudor court, the chief officers of the
household ceremoniously accompanied the bowl
into the monarch's presence.

In parts of Medieval Britain, a different sort of
wassailing emerged: farmers wassailed their
crops and animals to encourage fertility. An
observer recorded, "They go into the Ox-house
to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to
their health."

The practice continued into the eighteenth
century, when farmers in the west of Britain
toasted the good health of apple trees to
promote an abundant crop the next year. Some
placed cider-soaked bread in the branches to
ward off evil spirits. In other locales, villagers
splashed the trees with cider while firing guns
or beating pots and pans. Sometimes they sang
special songs:

Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to th'old apple tree
Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear.
Friends-and strangers, too, as was sometimes
custom-caroled their townsfolk on Christmas and
were thanked with a glass of wassail.

By about 1600, the practice of taking a wassail
bowl about the streets had taken root. Instead
of consuming the punch-like concoction at home,
wassailers went house to house offering a warm
drink, sometimes expecting payment.

A late seventeenth-century commentator wrote,
"Wenches their Wassels at New-years-tide
...present you with a Cup, and you must drink of
the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must
give them Moneys." In some places girls trimmed
the bowl with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary
and carried it round the streets while singing

A song of the period runs:

Wassail, wassail, out of the milk pail,
Wassail, wassail, as white as my nail,
Wassail, wassail, in snow, frost and hail,
Wassail, wassail, that much doth avail,
Wassail, wassail, that never will fail.

It didn't take long for wassailing in expectation
of recompense to merge with other
manifestations of holiday "misrule" that
characterized old English Christmas-an
inheritance from the ancient Romans.

As at the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, at
Christmastide the Anglo-Saxons turned normal
social relationships symbolically and temporarily
upside down. Men and women might cross-dress
and act the part of the opposite sex, school boys
bar out their teachers, or a peasant be named
"Lord of Misrule."

The wealthy were expected to share their
bounty with poorer villagers and servants. One
manifestation of this, the tipping of servants-
called "boxing" after the clay boxes with money
slits English servants once used or their
collections-found its way to colonial America.

English and Canadian calendars still mark
Boxing Day as December 26, the traditional
feast day of St. Stephen, and the concept
survives wherever an employer gives a Christmas
bonus or when we tip at the holiday those who
render us services throughout the year.

At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges
denied them at other times, including the right
to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted
them from the best of their provisions. In
exchange, the lord of the manor had the
goodwill of his people for another year. At
these gatherings, the bands of roving
wassailers often performed songs for the
master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his
family, his livestock, wishing continued health
and wealth:

Again we assemble, a merry New Year
To wish each one of the family here....
May they of potatoes and herrings have
With butter and cheese, and each other

Not every song, however, expressed unreserved
goodwill. Some conveyed threats of reprisals
for bad treatment, a sentiment like the trick-or-
treat of Halloween:

We have come to claim our right....
And if you don't open up your door,
We'll lay you flat upon the floor.

The disorder of such holiday misrule gave
concern to the Puritan fathers of New England,
who attempted to thwart the transplantation of
English Christmas to America. The Puritan
Parliament outlawed the celebration in England
during the 1640s and 1650s. Similar laws held
sway in New England long after restoration of
the monarchy in 1660 reestablished Christmas
in the mother country.

The Puritans chafed under the early church's
decision to capitalize on the preexistence of
the pagan Saturnalia in selecting December 25
as the date for Christmas. Even sixteenth-
century English bishop Hugh Latimer, whose
Protestant Church of England kept Christmas,
said that

"Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve
days of Christmas, than in all the twelve
months besides."
Practices embodying the idea of wassailing continued into the nineteenth century, and other wassail-like drinks, especially eggnog, gained popularity.

In the 1820s, American novelist Washington Irving did much to fix an idealized view of old English Christmas, complete with wassailing, in the minds of his readers. In England, the works of Charles Dickens portrayed continued gatherings around the wassail bowl. In Victorian times, caroling came into its own, distanced from its context of alcohol consumption and rowdiness.

Rituals akin to wassailing survived in the nineteenth-century American South. One was the holiday celebration of "John Canoe" as practiced by African slaves in the Caribbean islands and brought to early coastal North Carolina. Though the origin of the name or its variants, such as Junkanoo or John Kooner, is unclear, some say it recalled a legendary African prince and slave trader. During Christmastide, bands of young black men in bizarre costumes played music and marched from place to place, accosting whites and sometimes entering their houses. In return for performing dances they received money or whisky. John Canoe is practiced in the West Indies, particularly in Jamaica, today.

Throughout the slave South, where old English customs died hard, the Christmas season took on a carnival atmosphere. Southerners documented in their letters and diaries the heavy drinking by whites and blacks. Former slaves like Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass wrote about Christmas as a time when masters released their human chattel from work but degraded them by encouraging drunkenness. In Virginia, in 1845, the wife of former President John Tyler wrote that their slaves "had given themselves up completely to their kind of happiness-drinking, with nothing on earth to do."

Slaves at Christmas expected, like the poor of old England, gifts of clothing, food, drink, and other commodities from their masters. Like English country squires, some planters opened their homes for the day as the setting for presenting these tokens and receiving the homage and greetings of their slaves.

Liberation of the slaves at the end of the Civil War made the question of whether to continue these traditional exchanges a topic of public and private concern across the defeated South as Christmas of 1865 approached.

Elements of wassailing, like begging door to door, survived unbroken into the early twentieth century in Britain and America.

Older residents of the Big Apple will remember that on New Year's Day in the 1930s and 1940s, some New York City children dressed in ragged clothing and dirtied their faces to ring doorbells and ask for pennies. By that time, drink, considered inappropriate for children, no longer played a role in the ritual.

Though rural folk in a few places in Britain keep wassailing practices alive today, it's mostly a matter of self-conscious preservation of a virtually extinct tradition. And as with just about everything else in our time, the Internet serves as a mouthpiece for twenty-first-century revivalists around the world, who promote the reinterpretation of wassailing traditions at holiday festivals-or wherever two or three are gathered round a Christmas punch bowl.
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