Author: Ruth Tipton, Trainee Archaeologist
Perhaps somewhat unsurprising but drinking has played an important role in celebrating Christmas for a very long time. There are numerous different festive drinking customs but the one we’re going to focus on is ‘wassailing’.
Wassailing is traditionally a twelfth night tradition that dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. The custom has pagan roots and was celebrated centuries before Christianity spread across the country around 600AD. The custom involved the lord of the manor greeting the masses by toasting ‘waes hael’ (be well). The crowd would then shout back ‘drink hael’ (drink well), thus starting the new year celebrations and drinking. The drink itself would vary depending on your locality but it usually consisted of warmed ale, cider, or wine and blended with spices, honey, or sometimes egg. This was served in a large wassail bowl that was passed from person to person with the traditional ‘wassail’ greeting. The custom varied depending on local customs. However, the practice can be broadly separated into two types which we will refer to as ‘orchard wassailing’ and ‘house wassailing’.
‘Orchard wassailing’ would typically involve a wassail ‘king’ and ‘queen’ who would lead a procession of revellers from orchard to orchard. The group would make as much noise as possible by singing, shouting, banging pots and pans, and sometimes even firing shotguns. This was to wake up the tree spirits and banish any evil spirits, in order to ensure a good harvest for the coming year. The owner of the orchard would then offer the party some form of warm, spiced alcoholic drink from a wassail bowl as a form of thanks. This custom is still practised around the country, most notably in areas associated with cider making such as Somerset and Devon.
‘House wassailing’, on the other hand, may sound more familiar to you and would involve parties going from house to house. They would sing traditional songs and spread good cheer to all in exchange for food and drink. Sounds a bit like carolling, right? Well, that’s because the practice did evolve into what we now recognise as carolling and the remnants of it can still be seen in some songs such as ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ (Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer) and ‘Somerset Wassail’.
Curious about trying out some (socially distanced) wassailing yourself? To get you started, here are some links to traditional Christmas drinks to get you started. Waes Hael!!
- Wassail: https://www.whychristmas.com/fun/recipe_wassail.shtml
- Hot buttered rum: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/hot-buttered-rum
- Spiced apple syrup with clementine & cloves (alcohol free): https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/spiced-apple-syrup-clementine-and-clove
- Non-alcoholic eggnog: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/non-alcoholic-eggnog
Title photo – https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Wassailing/