The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827.

Volume 1

Concerning the Derivation of Lamb's-wool

From the entry for October 31

It is mentioned by a writer in the "Gentleman's Magazine," that lamb's-wool is a constant ingredient at a merry-making on Holy Eve, or on the evening before All Saints-day in Ireland. It is made there, he says, by bruising roasted apples, and mixing them with ale, or sometimes with milk. "Formerly, when the superior ranks were not too refined for these periodical meetings of jollity, white wine was frequently substituted for ale. To lamb's-wool, apples and nuts are added as a necessary part of the entertainment; and the young folks amuse themselves with burning nuts in pairs on the bar of the grate, or among the warm embers, to which they give their name and that of their lovers, or those of their friends who are supposed to have such attachments; and from the manner of their burning and duration of the flame, &c. draw such inferences respecting the constancy or strength of their passions, as usually promote mirth and good humour." Lamb's-wool is thus etymologized by Vallancey:—"The first day of November was dedicated to the angel presiding over fruits, seeds, &c. and was therefore 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."

From the Entry for December 24

A correspondent to the "Gentleman's Magazine," says, that when he was a school-boy, it was a practice on Christmas-eve to roast apples on a string till they dropt into a large bowl of spiced ale, which is the whole composition of lamb's wool. Brand thinks, that this popular beverage obtained its name from the softness of the composition, and he quotes from Shakspeare's "Midsummer-Night's Dream,"

——— "Sometimes lurk I in a gossip's bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab;
And, when she drinks, against her lips I bob,
And on her wither'd dew-lap pour the ale."

It was formerly a custom in England on Christmas-eve to wassail, or wish health to the apple-tree. Herrick enjoins to—

"Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a plum, and many a peare;
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
And you do give them wassailing."

In 1790, it was related to Mr. Brand, by sir Thomas Acland, and Werington, that in his neighbourhood on Christmas-eve it was then customary for the country people to sing a wassail or drinking-song, and throw the toast from the wassail-bowl to the apple-trees in order to have a fruitful year.

From the Entry for January 5

Mr. Beckwith relates in the Gentleman's Magazine, 1784, that “near Leeds, in Yorkshire, when he was a boy, it was customary for many families, on the twelfth eve of Christmas, to invite their relations, friends, and neighbours, to their houses, to play at cards, and to partake of a supper, of which minced pies were an indispensable ingredient; and after supper was brought in, the wassail cup or wassail bowl, of which every one partook, by taking with a spoon, out of the ale, a roasted apple, and eating it, and then drinking the healths of the company out of the bowl, wishing them a merry Christmas and a happy new year. (The festival of Christmas used in this part of the country to hold for twenty days, and some persons extended it to Candlemas.) The ingredients put into the bowl, viz. Ale, sugar, nutmeg, and roasted applies, were usually called lambs'-wool, and the night on which it is used to be drunk (generally on the twelfth eve) was commonly called Wassil eve.” The glossary to the Exmore dialect has “Watsail – a drinking song on twelfth-day eve, 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.”

From the Entry for January 6

In “Time's Telescope,” an useful and entertaining annual volume, there is a short reference to the usage in Cumberland, and other northern parts of England. It seems that on Twelfth-night, which finishes their Christmas holidays, the rustics meet in a large room. They begin dancing at seven o'clock, and finish at twelve, when they sit down to lobscouse, and ponsondie; the former is made of beef, potatoes, and onions fried together; and in ponsondie we recognize the wassail or waes-hael of ale, boiled with sugar and nutmeg, into which are put roasted apples, — the anciently admired lambs'-wool. The feast is paid for by subscription: two women are chosen, who with two wooden bowls placed one within the other, so as to leave an opening and a space between them, go round to the female part of the society in succession, and what one puts into the uppermost bowl the attendant collectress slips into the bowl beneath it. All are expected to contribute something, but not more than a shilling, and they are best esteemed who give most. The men choose two from themselves, and follow the same custom, except that as the gentlemen are not supposed to be altogether so fair in their dealings as the ladies, one of the collectors is furnished with pen, ink, and paper, to set down the subscriptions as soon as received.

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.

Related Hymns and Carols