Notes On The Songs And Traditions
Wassailing songs are among the most popular of the secular holiday songs of Christmas. Among the most popular of wassailing songs begins:
Here we come a wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a wandering
So fair to be seen.
The Wassail Song is among the best known of the traditional wassail songs, and was well-known throughout England by the middle 19th century. It's roots, however, certainly go back even further.
Rev. Ian Bradley makes the excellent point that the tradition of wassailers going door to door, singing and drinking to the health of those whom they visit, goes back to pre-Christian fertility rites where the villagers went through orchards at mid-winter singing and shouting loudly to drive out evil spirits, and pouring cider on the roots of trees to encourage fertility.
The ancient rite of wassailing trees was well known in Devonshire, Herefordshire and in other parts of the West Country of England (and elsewhere? please let me know). It generally took place on Twelfth Night (January 5th), or sometimes on 17th January, known as Old Twelfth Night. Farmers and their families would feast on hot cakes and cider, then they would go into the orchard with more "supplies."
A cider-soaked cake is laid in the fork of a tree and then more cider is splashed on it. The men fire their guns into the tree and bang on pots and pans while the rest of the people bow their heads and sing the special "Wassail Song." This custom is said to ward off bad spirits from the orchard and encourages the good spirits to provide a bountiful crop for the following year.
In other traditions, the men of the village went out to the orchards carrying the wassail bowl, to alternately serenade and browbeat the apple trees. There were songs, dances and libations (for tree and man alike) until finally, in frustration, the trees would be threatened with the axe if they did not produce well in the coming year. A newspaper account of 1851 documents Devonshire men firing guns (charged only with powder) at the trees.
Concerning this custom, A. H. Bullen writes:
This custom was kept up till the end of the last century. Brand relates that in 1790 a Cornish man informed him it was the custom for the Devonshire people on the eve of Twelfth Day to go after supper into the orchard with a large milk-pan full of cyder with roasted apples in it. Each person took what was called a clayen cup, i.e. an earthenware cup full of cyder, and standing under each of the more fruitful trees, sung —
“Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
After drinking part of the contents of the cup, he threw the rest, with the fragments of the roasted apples, at the trees, amid the shouting of the company. Another song sung on such occasions was
“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!”
It is supposed that the custom was a relic of the sacrifice to Pomona [the Roman Goddess of Fruits].
The American author Henry David Thoreau also cites Brand's Popular Antiquities in his essay Wild Apples: The History of the Apple Tree (published in the Atlantic Monthly, November, 1862), although he states that the practice took place on Christmas Eve, not Twelfth Night. However, he adds the note of an old practice of "apple-howling" in various counties of England on New Year's Eve where a troop of boys visits different orchards, and, encircling the trees, chant the following:
Stand fast, root! bear well, top!
Pray God send us a good howling crop:
Every twig, apples big;
Every bough, apples enow!
Then then shout in chorus, with one accompanying them on a cow's horn, and rap the trees with their sticks (this being called "wassailing" the trees):
WASSAIL the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum and many a pear:
For more or less fruits they will bring,
As you do give them wassailing.
According to a friend of this site, Ellen, wassailing of trees is still practiced in the Gloucestershire region of England.
This practice echoes one practiced by Romanians. As the housewife kneaded special holiday dough in the kitchen, her husband would pass through the house on his way to the orchard, in a vile temper. She followed anxiously behind as he passed from tree to tree, threatening to cut down each barren one. She would urge him to especially spare this one or that, saying: "Oh no, I'm sure this tree will be as heavy with fruit next year as my hands are with dough this day."
Wassailing As "Luck Visits" And Subsequent Traditions
It was only later that these traditions became associated with "luck visits" made around the neighborhood, together with general merry-making (and, as Rev. Bradley pointed out, "fortified by copious quantities of alcohol"). Soon, these traditions would merge with the waits who traveled the streets of the cities (and who were paid to sing and play during the holidays). And voila! we have a tradition: wassailing.
William Henry Husk, writing in 1868, reproduced the Wassailers' Carol (whose well known first verse begins: "Here we come a wassailing"), noting that its last verse was the same as the first verse of a carol reproduced by Ritson in Ancient Songs and Ballads (1829), which, in turn, may have been copied from a source during the reigns of James 1 (1566-1625) or Charles 1 (1600-1649). The verse was:
Good master and mistress,
While you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children,
Who are wandering in the mire.
That being the case, the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols (OBC) suggest that Shakespeare (1564-1616) may have heard that fragment sung outside of his house at Christmas.
The wassail was not, however, absolutely confined to the Christmas season, but was used to indicate any convivial and festive meetings. Sandys quotes Shakespeare's Hamlet: —
"The king doth wake to-night, and takes his rouse,
Indeed, says Sandys, the meetings were themselves called after them, again quoting Shakespeare, this time from Love's Labor Lost: —
“He is wit’s peddler, and retails his wares
At wakes and wassels, meetings, markets, fairs.”
Later, the meaning of wassail would become more narrow. By the way, the editors of the OBC suggest that verses two, six and seven of The Wassail Song "are not suitable when the carol is sung in church, but they give a vivid picture of the Waits of old times."
But the discussion of just one song barely scratches the surface of the rich lode of this tradition. Concerning this genre, Edith Rickert writes in 1910:
"The oldest carol known (cf. Appendix I. p. 132 - Seignors Ore Entendez À Nus; translation from Sandys: Lordings, From A Distant Home), although Anglo-Norman, embodies the Saxon phrases used in pledging. The former of these has survived in the refrain of the initial carol of this group (Wassail, Wassail, Out of the Milk Pail), which is otherwise highly religious. In the seventeenth century the wassail was a definite institution — the carrying about of a bowl of spiced ale from house to house to drink healths in expectation of a contribution. Nowadays the utterance of a "Merry Christmas' is often judged sufficient for the tip. Some of the poems here included are mere drinking-songs, but they were probably sung as carols at Christmas."
The word 'wassail' comes from the Old English "Waes hael" — that is, "Good Health!" The correct response was "Drinc hael." In Best-Loved Christmas Carols, Clancy and Studwell notes that the custom of wassailing may go back to the fifth century century, although the first mention in print was in 1140; Vortigern, mentioned below, dates to the early fifth century. Sandys believes that the custom could date to the third century.
Dr. Rickert's 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.
Sandys writes that one of the earliest wassail songs is that introduced by Dissimulation, disguised as a religious person, in Bale’s old play of Kynge Johan [1166-1216], about the middle of the sixteenth century [e.g., circa 1538]. He brings in the cup by which the king is poisoned, stating that it “passith malmesaye, capryck, tyre, or ypocras,” and then sings —
"Wassayle, wassayle out of the mylke payle,
Wassayle, wassayle as white as my nayle,
Wassayle, wassayle in snowe, froste, and hayle,
Wassayle, wassayle with partriche and rayle,
Wassayle, wassayle that muclie doth avayle,
Wassayle, wassayle that never wylle fayle."
In Caxton’s Chronicle [circa 1480] the account of the death of King John represents the cup to have been filled with good ale; and the monk bearing it, knelt down, saying, “Syr, wassayll for euer the dayes so all lyf dronke ye of so good a cuppe.”
As we will see, there were many traditions associated with the practice of wassailing, reflecting the differing traditions of individual communities and regions.
In medieval times, as noted by Keyte and Parrott, in The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols, wassailers had become were rural luck visitors who toasted householders from their communal bowl. Elizabeth Poston stated that it was a custom connected with children and the Waits, and which took place between Christmas and the New Year. Ian Bradley, quoting Strutt's Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, explains that the wassail bowl was
formerly carried about by young women on New-year's eve, who went from door to door in their several parishes singing a few couplets of homely verses composed for the purposes, and presented the liquor to the inhabitants of the house where they called, expecting a small gratuity in return.
As the song states, wassailers wouldn't object to a bit of beer or cheese either.
William Sandys took note of an essay written by a Mr. Hunter who notices a payment of a hundred shillings made, in the time of Edward the Second (1284-1327), to Isabelle del Holde and Alisoun Conand, damsels of the queen, for crying Noël and Wessel.
William Hone, in his The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information (1832) took note of the expense book of one Sir John Francklyn in 1625 which contained the notation: "Paid for the cup 1s 6d." Hone explained that this was payment for a drink from the wassail-cup.
William L. Simon, in The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (1981) notes that the wassail bowl itself was a hearty combination of apples, spices, sugar, and hot ale or beer. The contents were referred to as "lamb's wool." Mr. Hone, in his Every Day Book series, has several discussions concerning the origin and contents: Lamb's-wool. In short: The first day of November was dedicated to the angel presiding over fruits, seeds, &c. and was named La Mas Ubhal, that is, the day of the apple fruit, and being pronounced lamasool. The English have corrupted the name to lamb's-wool.
Keyte and Parrott state that the bowl was often garlanded and ribboned.
Although wassailing was primarily an Epiphany Eve custom in most places (and which in some places was called Wassail eve, according to Sandys), as we have seen, it was also observed at other times during the season, including St. Thomas Day (December 21), Christmas Eve, and New Year's Eve. See these notes by A. H. Bullen following Here We Come A-Whistling.
The custom of the wassail bowl was not merely one that was experienced when someone came to your door. The American Washington Irving (1783-1859) gave this description in his sketch of an English "Christmas Dinner," The Wassail Bowl:
When the cloth was removed, the butler brought in a huge silver vessel of rare and curious workmanship, which he placed before the squire. Its appearance was hailed with acclamation; being the Wassail Bowl, so renowned in Christmas festivity. The contents had been prepared by the squire himself; for it was a beverage in the skilful mixture of which he particularly prided himself: alleging that it was too abtruse and complex for the comprehension of an ordinary servant. It was a potation, indeed, that might well make the heart of a toper leap within him; being composed of the richest and raciest wines, highly spiced and sweetened, with roasted apples bobbing about the surface.*
* The Wassail Bowl was sometimes composed of ale instead of wine; with nutmeg, sugar, toast, ginger, and roasted crabs; in this way the nut-brown beverage is still prepared in some old families, and round the hearths of substantial farmers at Christmas. It is also called Lamb's Wool, and is celebrated by Herrick in his Twelfth Night:
Next crowne the bowle full
With gentle Lamb's Wool;
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger
With store of ale too;
And thus ye must doe
To make the Wassaile a swinger.
The old gentleman's whole countenance beamed with a serene look of indwelling delight, as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to his lips, with a hearty wish of a merry Christmas to all present, he sent it brimming round the board, for every one to follow his example, according to the primitive style; pronouncing it "the ancient fountain of good feeling, where all hearts met together."*
* "The custom of drinking out of the same cup gave place to each having his cup. When the steward came to the doore with the Wassel, he was to cry three times, Wassel, Wassel, Wassel, and then the chappell (chaplein) was to answer with a song."- ARCHAEOLOGIA.
There was much laughing and rallying as the honest emblem of Christmas joviality circulated, and was kissed rather coyly by the ladies. When it reached Master Simon, he raised it in both hands, and with the air of a boon companion struck up an old Wassail chanson.
The brown bowle,
The merry brown bowle,
As it goes round about-a,
Let the world say what it will,
And drink your fill all out-a.
The deep canne,
The merry deep canne,
As thou dost freely quaff-a,
Be as merry as a king,
And sound a lusty laugh-a.*
* From Poor Robin's Almanac.
Later in the dinner, Irving observed: “I found the tide of wine and wassail fast gaining on the dry land of sober judgment.”
Editor's Note: I have observed the same effect in modern times, even when the wassail is of a less complex recipe.
William Sandys confirmed that many of the great manors had, and probably still have (at that writing in 1853), wassail bowls of "massive silver." He also noted that in Bed Jonson's Christmas, His Masque, the character of "Wassail" was described as "a neat sempster and songster; her page bearing a brown bowl, dressed with ribbons and rosemary, before her."
Additional Epiphany Eve celebrations are described in Hone's accounts of January 5 – Eve of Epiphany.
At times, however, the practice of wassailing has degenerated into nothing short of armed home invasions. The banning of Christmas altogether in both England and the American colonies by the Puritans and Pilgrims were, in small part, a reaction to these and other excesses (certainly larger theological issues were at work which led to the English Civil War).
In the early 1800s in New York, prominent citizens were very concerned about such practices (which also featured such actions as gunfire, drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, excessive gambling, and riots; see the proclamation of the mayor of Washington, December 23, 1828, left). It was their desire to take Christmas off the streets and into the homes. The evolution of Christmas practices in those years was a direct result. One change was from "wassailing" (and a wassail bowl containing alcoholic beverages) to "caroling" (which was more likely rewarded with hot chocolate, cookies, and the like).
The custom of caroling was one that was very wide-spread, especially in the country (as opposed to urban areas, although the waits would continue the practice until the organization of official metropolitan police departments). Rev. Bradley reported that a book on Popular Antiquities [presumably Brand's], published in 1795, noted that in Newcastle upon Tyne and other places in the North of England boys and girls went round on the nights leading up to Christmas, including Christmas Eve, "knocking at the doors and singing their Christmas Carols."
Several sources reported that a correspondent to the Gentleman's Magazine in 1811 wrote that while staying in the North Riding of Yorkshire he had been awoken at about six o'clock on Christmas morning "by a sweet singing under my window." An American visitor to Yorkshire in 1820 reported a similar experience on Christmas Eve:
I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band, which I concluded to be the waits from some neighbouring village. They went round the house playing under the windows.
Washington Irving wrote in his sketch "Christmas Day" (1822):
WHEN I woke the next morning, it seemed as if all the events of the preceding evening had been a dream, and nothing but the identity of the ancient chamber convinced me of their reality. While I lay musing on my pillow, I heard the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door, and a whispering consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chanted forth an old Christmas carol, the burden of which was -
Rejoice, our Savior he was born
On Christmas day in the morning.
I rose softly, slipt on my clothes, opened the door suddenly, and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs. They were going the rounds of the house, and singing at every chamber door; but my sudden appearance frightened them into mute bashfulness. They remained for a moment playing on their lips with their fingers, and now and then stealing a shy glance from under their eyebrows, until, as if by one impulse, they scampered away, and as they turned an angle of the gallery, I heard them laughing in triumph at their escape.
But there was a concern that caroling was passing away. The older people remembered it, but the younger people did not know it, or did not know it very well. William Hone in 1822 spoke of caroling as a form which was dying out, noting only 89 carols currently in print. He wrote: "Carols begin to be spoken of as not belonging to this century and yet no one, that I am aware of, has attempted a collection of these fugitives. As the carols now printed will at no distant period become obsolete, an alphabetical list of those in my possession is subjoined." Here is his list: Christmas Carols now annually Printed. It is unfortunate that he did not provide the lyrics of those carols; I have been able to recover less than half.
But as Hone's book went to press, there was a sign. Mr. Gilbert Davies, MP, had published the words and music to eight carols. Hone noted: "This is a laudable and successful effort to rescue from oblivion some carol melodies which in a few years will be no more heard." The next year, Mr. Davies would publish eleven more. It was a start.
Ten years later, William Sandys wrote that from the mid-17th Century on, "... carol-singing was probably continued with unabated zeal, till towards the end of the last century [i.e., 18th Century], since which the practice has declined, and many old customs have been gradually becoming obsolete." Although Mr. Sandys observed that throughout history, many have bemoaned the perception that the present is bereft is the pleasures enjoyed by their fore-fathers and -mothers, he also had this observation in 1852:
After the Restoration, the people gladly returned to their amusements without restraint, and from the reaction, in many instances perhaps, went into the opposite extreme and indulged in too much conviviality. Carol singing was renewed with increased zeal.
Carols and not minc’d meat make Christmas pies,
‘Tis mirth, not dishes, sets a table off;
Brutes and phanaticks eat and never laugh.”
It so continued down to the present century, when it apparently began to abate; but it will be unnecessary to give any references to prove the continuance of such a custom, when, to a certain extent, it exists at present, though this and other observances are much shorn of their honours.’ Many of us will recollect when at Christmas time every street of any note had its carol singers, with their bundle of various carols, whereas now scarcely one vagrant minstrel can be found throughout the town, brass bands having blown them out; but there is still some demand for the carols, and specimens of broadside carols may be procured from the printers of this class of literature, in St. Andrew’s Street, Monmouth Court, Long Lane, and elsewhere.
In Birmingham also, and other large manufacturing towns, and other neighbourhoods where the practice of carol singing is retained, popular editions of the style called chap-books, as well as broadsides may be found; several of them of considerable antiquity, handed down for many generations, and frequently illustrated by woodcuts of the most grotesque nature in point of execution and design. Many of us will also recollect when carols were sung in the country, not only in the farm-houses, in mansions, and baronial halls, but likewise in churches — as Heath says, was the custom, in Scilly, in the middle of last century — and this with much propriety and right feeling.
"If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note and strong."
Each succeeding year shows a falling-off in the number of houses where the practice is now admitted; and in many parts the carols are scarcely heard at all, people getting too refined, or — too good (?); the extreme west and north, and some of the manufacturing districts, being the most likely places to hear them, as they were, in former times, among the yeomanry of our land.
But Mr. Sandys offered more than despair; in 1833 he published the words to 80 carols, plus the music to 18. He performed a similar feat in 1852 (42 carols, 12 musical settings), and the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols (see Appendix 4) believe that he and William Henry Husk combined in 1861 to publish "Christmas Carols: Ancient and Modern" under the pseudonym of "Joshua Sylvestre." Husk published his own volume in 1868; not surprisingly, some portions of it resembled the work of Sandys and "Sylvestre." He would not be alone in that distinction. Many would acknowledge that debt.
Soon, many collectors, recognizing the magnitude of the potential loss, were combing the English countryside. Many significant collections would be published in the coming decades, and continue to be published as historians, amateur and professional, would scour old books, newspapers, journals, and hymnals — and share their bounty. The creation of a world wide web has only spurred this sharing.
I do not mean to slight the extensive work done by collectors in other countries. It is my ignorance of those languages only which hampers my ability to acknowledge their work. As mentioned in my Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, I would be happy to link to others who have created similar collections in their languages.
There is still caroling, although its nature seems to have changed, at least in the United States. The village town center has evolved into the metropolitan shopping mall ... and there, throughout the holiday season, the carolers can be found. Carolers from grade schools, high schools, colleges, and community groups can be heard throughout the day and evening. Concerts in schools and community centers are numerous. While I haven't heard a group of carolers come through my neighborhood in 40 years (and, truthfully, they were wassailers), I don't have to go more than 50 meters (to a neighborhood church) to hear a beautiful concert of holiday music. If I'm willing to go as far as 4 kilometers, I can choose from a half-dozen churches, a library, a community center, and a senior center. It's an embarrassment of riches for anyone who loves the music of the season.
There are quite a few wassail songs on this site, many with their own notes, including:
The Cornish Wassails:
Cornish Wassail - Version 1 (Now Christmas is comin, and New Year begin)
Cornish Wassail - Version 2 (Sweet master of the habitation, with my mistress be so kind)
Cornish Wassail - Version 3a (Now here at this house we first shall begin)
Cornish Wassail - Version 3b (Wassail, wassail all round the town)
Cornish Wassail - Version 3c (We stand at your door and we first shall begin)
The Gloucestershire Wassail (Wassail! Wassail! and all over the town):
Wassail and Wassail All Over The Town - Version 6
Here They Come Assailing (Humor)
Here We Come A Wassailing (Humor)
Here We Come A-Whistling (through the fields so green)
Omnes Gentes Plaudite (I saw many birds sitting on a tree)
The Somerset Wassails (Wassail! wassail! all around the town)
West Cornwall Wassail (O mistress, at your door our Wassail begins)
Wassail Bough (Broadwood and Fuller Maitland: Anston, in South Yorkshire)
The Wassail Song - Version 1 (Here We Come A-Wassailing)
The Wassail Song - Version 2 (Here We Come A-Caroling)
The Wassail Song (First Line: O mistress, at your door our wassail begins)
Wassail, Wassail, Wassail, Sing We (First line: Now joy be to the Trinity)
See also the following poems:
Give Way, Give Way, Ye Gates, And Win (A Wassail) - Robert Herrick
The Wassail - Robert Herrick
Many other wassail songs can be located at The Wassail Page!!!! -- The Web's Wassail Epicenter!! -- and a site which I heartily recommend, including:
A Sober Spouse for Me (an anti-wassailing song)
Adderbury Wassail Song (Good master and good mistress as you sit by the fire)
The Apple Tree Wassail (Versions 1 & 2)
Ashen Faggot Wassail (Wassail and wassail and all over the town)
Belly Wassail (I wish you a merry Christmas, And a Happy New Year)
Bodin Wassail (This is our merry night for choosing King and Queen)
Canu Cwnsela (A Welsh Wassail)
Carhampton Wassailing Song (Old apple tree, we wassail thee)
Edwin Ace Wassail (A wassail, a wassail, throughout all this town)
Gower Wassail - Version 1 (A Wassail, a wassail throughout all this town)
Gower Wassail - Version 2
Harleian Wassail (Bryng vs home good ale, s', bryng vs home good ale)
Heywood Sumner Wassail Song (Pray master and mistress if you are within)
Homeless Wassail (... But huddled on this iron grate, we poor and hungry curse our fate)
Horatio Tucker Wassail (A wassail, a wassail, throughout all this town)
Humboldt Waissail Song (Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green)
Husk Wassail Song (Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green)
Kentucky Wassail (Wassail, wassail, all over the town)
Let Every Man Take Off His Hat (An apple tree wassail)
Lucy Green Wassail (Here we come a-wassailing long with our Lucy Green)
Malpas Wassail (Now the harvest being over and Christmas drawing in)
Oh Where Is The Maid
Old Fox Wassail - Version 1 (Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green)
Old Fox Wassail - Version 2 (Down in the old lane there sits and old fox)
Robin Redbreast Wassail (Gude Maister and Missus a zittin by the fire)
Sixteenth Century Wassail (Wassail, wassail, sing we / In worship of Christ’s nativity.)
Southrups Wassail Song (All on a summer's morning from Southrups come we)
Somerset Wassail (Wassail and wassail all over the town)
Steeleye Span Wassail (A-wassail, a-wassail throughout all the town)
Thames Head Wassail (Wassail, wassail, all over the town)
Treecat Wassail (We've been awhile a-sneaking)
The Trunch Wassail Song (Here we come a wassailing all among the leaves)
Wassail Collected from William T Passmore Camborne (Tre's the master and the missus sitting down by the fire)
Wassail, Wassail, Out of the Milk Pail
Wassailers, Bodmin (Oh! For singing wassail, wassail, wassail)
... and many others. This is an especially rich source of information concerning wassailing — complete with numerous songs, stories, recipes, and other treats. Recommended!
New!! Just Released!!!
The Book of Wassail -- Now available!!!!
A five volume study of wassail-music, literature, folklore, recipes and more. Hundreds of songs. Nothing like it has ever been published. Get it at The Wassail Page!!!!
The good news is that wassailing is a tradition that continues. On January 4, 2007, I received the following note from a friend of the site, Tom Rowe:
Wassailing was also practised in the counties ofand (my home county) where it was generally known as 'howling'. The northern part of and adjoining areas of once constituted a significant cider producing region. Traditional cider production is unfortunately now virtually extinct in these areas (with some notable exceptions, e.g., JB Cider in Maplehurst, West ).
Wassailing takes place at Maplehurst and at Waldron inand at other places in the area though these are likely to be revivals rather than survivals.
In Sussex and Surrey the following lines were added to traditional wassailing songs:
'Stand fast root, bear well top Pray God send us a howling good crop. Every twig, apples big, Every bough, apples now.'
Reference: Hutton R. 1996 The Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 45-49. Also, according to Hutton, wassailing also took place in Western Worcesterhire (p. 47)
Hole (1976) [A Dictionary of British Folk Customs p318] also mentions that very similar customs took place on Twelfth Night or the First Sunday in Lent in Normandy's cider producing regions to bless the apple trees.
The Party Continues!
The Wassail family of songs continues to inspire artists. One of the most recent contributions is the Beautiful Downtown Burbank Christmas Music Video at YouTube from composer/arranger John Garvey, who wrote to me on December 1, 2011:
In 2007 I had some fun with the song "Here We Come A-Wassailing" while working on my Christmas CD. I noticed a similarity between the notes for "so fair to be seen" and "You must remember this" from "As Time Goes By," and thought it would be fun to have the melody of the wassail song take a brief detour through Casablanca for those six notes and then return to its normal notes. The project expanded from there with references to Jay Leno, ER, Lost, and several others (all Burbank-based) and eventually became a medley, "Ringtone Wassail/Burbank Wassail." In October of this year I created a music video with just the Burbank Wassail on the track, which you can view on YouTube.
The note on the YouTube page says:
Burbank, the Media Capital of the World, now has its own wassail song for Christmas! I started with the tune of "Here We Come A-Wassailing" and added a few embellishments that reflect Burbank's long movie history and some long-running TV series produced here and we've got a wassail song (instrumental) that can take its place among Gloucestershire Wassail, Gower Wassail, Somerset Wassail, Cornish Wassail and all the rest. Was hail! ("Be in health")
Hot babes in Santa suits (no, full Santa suits)! Snow! Adorable kids! Ballerinas! Christmas lights! Fireworks! The music video mashes clips from YouTube videos and other images by Burbank residents and visitors. See if you can find yourself and your friends in the video!
You can see both of John's Christmas CDs at his website carpecranium, which contains this description:
"A Christmas Motley" and "Holly and Hearth" feature a selection of Christmas carols ranging from the 11th through the 19th centuries, plus three of John's own compositions. The albums explore historical and contemporary styles, and the arrangements create moods from playful to meditative.
See also Apple Howling and Firing At The Apple Trees (Hazlett's 1905 edition of Brands Popular Antiquities). And see from William Hone, The Every Day Book: January 6 - Epiphany. Finally, there is also Ceremonies For Christmas - A. H. Bullen.
Ian Bradley, “Sing Choirs Of Angels,” History Today, December 1998.
Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols. London: Penguin, 1999.
Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain, W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated. Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged. In Two Volumes London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.
A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland. London: John C. Nimmo, 1885.
Ronald Clancy and William Studwell, Best-Loved Christmas Carols. Christmas Classics, Ltd., 2000.
Percy Dearmer, et. al., eds., The Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928.
Ancient Mysteries Described. London, 1823. Ward Lock Reprints, 1970.
The Every Day Book. Two Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827.
The Year Book, London: Thomas Tegg, 1832.
William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868.
Washington Irving, The Keeping Of Christmas At Bracebridge Hall. London: J. M. Dent & Co. 1906, pp. 57-8. This was an excerpt from the longer Bracebridge Hall (1822); Bracebridge Hall was modeled after Aston Hall, leased from Adam Bracebridge by James Watt.
Hugh Keyte and Parrott, eds., The New Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 2nd Ed. 1913.
Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols. London: Penguin, 1965.
Joseph Ritson, Ancient Songs and Ballads From The Reign of King Henry the Second To The Revolution. 1790. W. Carew Hazlitt, ed., Third Edition. London: Reeves And Turner, 1877. Repr. Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press, 1968
William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook. Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003.
William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995.
Earthly Delights: Xmas Carols
A Personal Post Script
This has nothing to do with wassail, but since we're on the topic of old English beverages, I was wondering what Dickens meant when he had Scrooge propose to Bob Cratchit that they share "a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop!"
American National Public Radio reporter Neda Ulaby reviewed the book Drinking With Dickens by Mr. Cedric Dickens, the great-grandson of Charles Dickens. In the book, Mr. Dickens reports that people back in the 1800s enjoyed a whole range of "clerical drinks." "Pope is burgundy, Cardinal is champagne or rye, Archbishop is claret, Bishop is port, and so on," Dickens wrote.
Here's Dickens' "Smoking Bishop" recipe:
• Take six Seville oranges and bake them in a moderate oven until pale brown. If you cannot procure any bitter Seville oranges, use four regular oranges and one large grapefruit.
• Prick each of the oranges with five whole cloves, put them into a warmed ceramic or glass vessel with one-quarter pound of sugar and a bottle of red wine, cover the vessel, and leave it in a warm place for 24 hours.
• Take the oranges out of the mixture, cut in half and squeeze the juice, then pour the juice back into the wine.
• Pour the mixture into a saucepan through a sieve, add a bottle of port, heat (without boiling), and serve in warmed glasses.
• Drink the mixture, and keep Christmas well!
Source: National Public Radio, December 25, 2002, URL: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=890045
Another recipe, with an interesting discussion, can be found at Christmas Smoking Bishop, December 17, 2007, http://www.drvino.com/2007/12/17/christmas-smoking-bishop/