The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Source: 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.

Vol. 2, pp. 619-20

There was an ancient custom, which is yet retained in many places, on New Year’s Eve: young women went about with a wassail bowl of spiced ale, dressed up with garlands and ribbons, and with some sort of verses that were sung by them as they went from door to door. Wassail is derived from the Anglo-Saxon Væ Þæl, be in health. It were unnecessary to add, that they accepted little presents on the occasion from the houses at which they stopped to pay this annual congratulation.

Wassail originally signified a salutation, but afterwards grow to signify revelry, excess. It appears from Thomas de a Moore (Vita Edw. II.) and Havillan (in "Architren." lib. 2), that was-haile and drinc-heil were the usual ancient phrases for quaffing among the English.

Ben Jonson [in Christmas, His Masque] personifies Wassel as "a neat sempster and songster, her page bearing a brown bowl, drest with ribbands and rosemary, before her." " I see a custome in some parts among us: I mean the yearely was-haile in the country on the’ vigil of the new yeare, which I conjecture was a usuall ceremony among the Saxons before Hengist, as a note of health-wishing, which was expest among other nations in that form of the health of their mistresses and friends. ‘Bene vos, bene vos, bene te, bene me, bene nostram etiam Stephanium [στεφάυιον] in Plautus, and infinite other testimonies of that nature (in him, Martiall, Ovid, Horace, and such more), agreeing nearly with the fashion now used: we calling it a health, as they did also in direct terms; which, with an idol called Heil, antiently worshipt at Cerne in Dorsetshire, by the English Saxons, in name expresses both the ceremony of drinking and the new years acclamation, whereto in some parts of this kingdom is joyned also solemnity of drinking out of a cup, ritually composed, deckt and filled with country liquor," &c.—Seldens’s Notes on Drayton’s Polyolb, song 9.

In his "Table-Talk," he says: "The Pope in sending relicks to princes, does as wenches do by their wassails at New Years tide they present you with a cup, and you must drink of a slabby stuff, but the meaning is, You must give them moneys, ten times more than it is worth." From Wither’s Christmas Carol it seems that the girls went about in the streets with these bowls, and sang carols, no doubt, with the same view.

We read in the "Glossary to the Exmoor Dialect:" "Watsail, a drinking song, snug on Twelfth Day Eye, throwing toast to the apple-trees, in order to have a fruitful year, which seems to be a relic of the heathen sacrifice to Pomona."1

"The Wassel Bowl," says Warton (edit, of Milton’s Poems, 1785 p. 51) "is Shakrspear’s Gossips’ Bowl in the ‘Mid-summer Night’s Dream,’ act. i. sc. 1." See "The Beggar’s Bush," act iv. sc. 4 and Polwhele’s "Old English Gentleman " p. 137. In the "Antiquarian Repertory" is a wood-cut of a large oak beam, the ancient support of a chimney-piece, on which is carved a large bowl, with this inscription on one side, "Wass-heil."

The ingenious remarker on this representation observes, that it is the figure of the old Wassel-Bowl, so much the delight of our hardy ancestors, who on the vigil of the new year never failed to assemble round the glowing hearth with their chearful neighbours, and then in the spicy wassel-bowl (which testified the goodness of their hearts) drowned every former animosity, an example worthy modern imitation. Wassel was the word, wassel every guest returned as he took the circling goblet from his friend, whilst song and civil mirth brought in the infant year.

This seems to have been done in some places upon Christmas Eve; for in Herrick’s "Hesperides," p. 311, I find it among the Christmas Eve ceremonies. Sir Thomas Ackland, Bart. informed Mr. Brand at Werington, October 24th, 1790, that this was done in his neighbourhood on Christmas Eve. See also "Gent. Mag." 1791, p. 116. "Archæol," vol. xi. p. 420.

Macaulay, in his "History of Claybrook," 1791, p. 131, observes: "Old John Payne and his wife, natives of this parish, are well known from having perambulated the Hundred of Guthlaxton many years, during the season of Christmas, with a fine gew-gaw which they call a wassail, and which they exhibit from house to house, with the accompaniment of a duet. I apprehend that the practice of wassailing will die with this aged pair. We are by no means so tenacious of old usages and diversions in this country, as they are in many parts of the world.’’

At these times the fare in other respects was better than usual, and, in particular, a finer kind of bread was provided, which was, on that account, railed wassel—bread. Lowth, in his "Life of William of Wykeham,’’ derives this name from the wastellum or vessel in which he supposes the bread to have been made. See Milner, ut supra, p. 421. To this account may be added what the author of the "Dialect of Craven" says: "A ring was frequently put into the wassail-bowl, which was dived for by the young people. He who obtained the ring was to be married first."

In the Collection of Ordinances for the Royal Household we have some account of the ceremony of wassailling, as it was practised at Court, on Twelfth Night, in the reign of Henry the Seventh. From these we learn that the ancient custom of pledging each ether out of the same cup had now given place to the more elegant practice of each person having his cup, and that "When the steward came in at the doore with the wassel, he was to crie three tymes, Wassel wassel, wassel; and then the chappell (the boys of the King’s Chapel) were to answere with a songe." Archœologia, x, 423.

"The kyng to morrow schal ete here,
He and alle hys men,
Ever one of us and one of them,
To geder schal sitte at the mete,
And when they haue almost y-ete,
I wole say wassayle to the kyng,
And sle hym with oute any le[s]yng—"
    Old Chronicle, quoted by Warton

Bale in his play of "Kynge Johan," has a sort of burlesque on the wassail song:

"Wassayle, wassayhe out of the milke payhe,
Wassayle, wassayle, as whyte as my nayhe,
Wassayle, wassayle, in snowe, froste, and hayhe,
Wassayle, wassayle, with partriche and rayhe,
Wassayle, wdssayle, that much doth avayle,
Wassayle, wassayle, that never wyll fayle."

In "How the Goode wif Thaught hir Daughter" we have, among other admonitions:

Sitte thou nought to longe on nyghtis by the cuppe,
And cry wasseile and drynkeheih for then our sires thrifte is vppe—"

In Ritson’s "Antient Songs," 1790, p. 304, is given "A Carrel for a Wassel Bowl, to be sung upon Twelfth Day at night—to the tune of "Gallants, come away;" from " New Christmas Carols: being fit also to be sung at Easter, Whitsontide, and other festival days in the year ;" no date, l2mo. b. l. in the Bodleian, among Wood’s books.

A wassailer’s song on New Year’s Eve, as it was sung in Gloucestershire in the 18th century, was communicated to Brand by Lysons. See it printed in the Percy Society volume, 1846; but its genuineness has been doubted.

The word wassail was in certain parts of the country corrupted into vessel, and it was usual to carry about the vessel-cup at Christmas, and sing carols, with a view to collect money. This was done in 1813, and perhaps later, at Holderness and in other parts of Yorkshire. The cup was sometimes accompanied by an image of Christ and roasted apples.

Wassail Candle.— A large candle used at any feast. [p. 620]

Wassailing.— See my edition of Blount's Tenures, 1874, v. Hereford. [p. 620]


1. Pomona was the Roman Goddess of fruiting trees and orchards. Return

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Greek or Latin passages. I'm of no help for Old or Middle English, either.

See Christmas Customs - Robert Herrick. See also notes and songs of Wassailing! And see Twelfth Day, Apple Howling, and Firing At The Apple Trees.

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