wassail

Wassail and wassailing are associated with Yuletide revels and overindulgence, although many people are a bit fuzzy on what the words mean. That’s somewhat understandable as the words have a variety of meanings. Wassail started out as a simple greeting, became a drinking toast, then became the drink and revelry itself, as well as songs associated with drinking, then carols and songs sung by people begging for drinks on Twelfth Night, and finally Christmas carols themselves.

The word comes from the Old English wes hal (and ves heill in Old Norse), meaning ‘be in good health,’ a traditional greeting. An anonymous homily, HomS 24.1 (Scragg), copied sometime in the period 1000-1025 translates Pilate’s greeting to Christ, “Ave, rex Iudeorum” (Hail, King of the Jews) as “Wes hal, þu Iudea cyning.” In Middle English this became wæs hæil.

Neither the Old English or the Old Norse phrase was especially associated with drinking. The first known association of wassail specifically with drinking appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) 6.12, written c. 1136, in the recounting the wedding feast of Rowena and Vortigern:

ab illo die usque in hodiernum mansit consuetudo illa in Britannia, quod in conviviis qui potat, ad alium dicit: Was heil! qui vero post ipsum recipit potum, respondet: Drinc heil.

(From that day until the present that custom remains in Britain, that those who drink at feasts say to each other: “Was heil!” And he who accepts the drink from him, responds: “Drinc heil.”)

The wedding of Rowena and Vortigern took place in the fifth century, and Geoffrey’s attribution of the phrase to that period is anachronistic.

Some decades after Geoffrey wrote his history, Layamon’s Brut (written sometime before 1200, with an extant copy—British Library, MS Cotton Caligula A.ix—from c.1275) provides an English-language account of the wedding feast:

Rouwenne [...] bar an hire honde ane guldene bolle. i-uulled mid wine [...] & þus ærest sæide in Ænglene londe. Lauerd king wæs hæil

(Rowena [...] bore in her hand a golden bowl, filled with wine and thus first said in England, “Lord King, wæs hæil.)

A later manuscript that contains the poem, British Library, MS Cotton Otho C.xiii, copied c. 1300, reads wassayl rather than wæs hæil. The Old English singular imperative form for the verb to be is wes, but in Middle English the inflection changed, and the imperative became identical to the infinitive be—as it is in modern English. Thus the shift from wes hæil to wassayl or wassail; as wes lost its meaning as an independent element in the phrase, the two words were combined into one.

Around this time, wassail began to be used for the drink itself. The poem Havelok the Dane, written c. 1300, has:

Wyn and ale deden he fete, And made[n] hem glade and bliþe, Wesseyl ledden he fele siþe.

(Wine and ale did he celebrate, and made him glad and blithe, wassail [did] he partake many times.)

And the noun was verbed as well. To wassail is to drink and carouse. Also from Havelok:

Hwan he [...] fele siþes haueden wosseyled, And with gode drinkes seten longe.

(When he [...] had wassailed many times, and sat long with good drinks.)

Around the turn of the seventeenth century wassail came to be used for general drinking and revelry, especially drinking on Twelfth Night or Epiphany. Shakespeare records the following exchange that criticizes such carousing in Hamlet 1.4: 

HAMLET:
The king doth wake to-night, and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail and the swagg’ring up-spring reels,
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
HORATIO:
Is it a custom?
HAMLET:
Ay, marry, is’t,
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honor’d in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc’d and tax’d of other nations.
They clip us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition, and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform’d at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.

Around this time wassail also came to mean a song sung while drinking or in return for receiving drink, hence carolers going house to house, singing wassails and receiving drinks in return. Fletcher and Beaumont use this sense ironically in their 1607 play The Woman Hater:

Haue you done your wassayl, tis a handsome drowsie dittie Ile assure yee, now I had as leeue here a Catte cry.

But within a few decades it was being used in all seriousness, as evidenced by the c. 1650 book New Christmas Carols, Carrol for Wassel-Bowl, which contains:

Good Dame here at your Door Our Wassel we begin.

Not all wassailing is associated with Yuletide. In parts of southern England wassailing is drinking to the health of orchards and fruit trees, traditionally done in the fall after the harvest. Robert Herrick’s 1648 Hesperides contains the line:

Wassaile the Trees, that they may beare You many a Plum, and many a Peare.

But this is a distinctly regional custom. For most of the English-speaking world wassail is associated with end-of-year festivities.


Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary Online, second edition. 1989. s. v. wassail, n.; wassail, v.

Scragg, D. G., ed. The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts. EETS 300. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1992. 29.

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