Wassail, Wassail, With a Jolly Wassail!

Image Source: Henry Vizetelly‘s Christmas with the Poets : a Collection of Songs, Carols, and Descriptive Verses Relating to the Festival of Christmas.
Published by David Bogue, 1855 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The centuries-old ceremony of Wassailing – blessing the oldest or most productive tree in the orchard with cider (or ‘lambswool‘) and song to ensure fruitfulness in the coming year (or just meandering around the village with a wassail-bowl as an excuse to carouse with your neighbours, according to preference and/or access to an orchard) traditionally takes place on either January 5th or January 17th (“old twelvey“), depending on your fondness for the Gregorian calendar.

Here’s how Henry Vizetelly says it should be done, writing in Christmas with the Poets : a Collection of Songs, Carols, and Descriptive Verses Relating to the Festival of Christmas, back in 1855:

The custom of Wassailing the fruit trees on the eve of Twelfth-day has been before alluded to. It seems to have been the practice, on the part of the Devonshire farmers, to proceed to their orchards in the evening, accompanied by their farm servants, and carrying with them a large pitcher or milk-pail filled with cider, with roasted apples hissing therein. They forthwith encircled one of the best bearing trees, and drunk the following toast three times. The remains of the wassailing liquor was then thrown against the trees, under the idea that a fruitful year would be the result.

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou may’st bud and thou may’st blow!
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel – bushel – sacks full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

I do like the sound of those roasted apples hissing in a pail of cider.

Modern interpretations of the Wassailing tradition vary, of course, but two things are common to pretty much all of them: the drinking of good cider and the singing of a wassail song.

Here’s one, from a book published by E. Macdonald in 1919: A Tankard of Ale: An Anthology of Drinking Songs, compiled and edited by one Theodore Maynard (via Wikimedia Commons):

WASSAIL ! wassail ! all over the toun,
Our toast it is white, and our ale it is broun ;
Our bowl it is made of a Maplin tree ;
We be good fellows all ; I drink to thee.

Here’s to our horse and to his right ear,
God send our measter a happy new year :
A happy new year as e’er he did see
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Here’s to our mare, and to her right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie ;
A good Christmas pie as e’er I did see
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Here’s to our cow, and to her long tail,
God send our measter us never may fail
Of a cup of good beer : I pray you draw near,
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear.

Be here any maids ? I suppose here be some ;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold
stone !
Sing hey O, maids ! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

Come, butler, come, bring us a bowl of the best ;
I hope your soul in heaven will rest ;
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small,
Then down fall butler, and bowl and all.

Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a specified tune to go with that one. I guess you can use any that the lyrics would fit. Or just ask Conrad J. Bladey, who has an archive of wassail lyrics and tunes on his website. (Waes hael, Conrad!)

And here’s UK folk music royalty, Waterson:Carthy, singing the ‘Jacobstowe Wassail’, originally from their album of winter songs, Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man (details at Allmusic.com), which also includes the ‘Sugar Wassail’.

There are plenty more great wassail songs to sing along to on YouTube, too.

Happy (socially distanced) wassailing everyone, whatever tune, song, or chant you choose for the occasion!

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