Wassailing goes back to pre-Christian times in a tradition meant to bring luck for the coming year. Wassail gets its name from the Old English term “waes hael”, meaning “be well”. At the start of each year, the Saxon lord of the manor would shout ‘waes hael’. The assembled crowd would reply ‘drinc hael’, meaning ‘drink and be healthy’. In cider producing regions, the wassailers went from door to door, with a wassail bowl filled with spiced ale, and sang and drank to the health of those they visited. In return people in the houses gave them drink, money and Christmas food. Traditionally Wassailing was held on Old ‘Twelvy’ Night, before the Georgian Calendar aligned the calendar year to the solar year. The true date for Wassailing, therefore, was the 17th of January.
Listen to a traditional wassailing song on this YouTube link.
In cider producing regions, the tradition varied, and was known as the wassailing of trees:
…it was the custom for the Devonshire people on the eve of Twelfth Day to go after supper into the orchard with a large milk-pan full of cyder with roasted apples in it. Each person took what was called a clayen cup, i.e. an earthenware cup full of cyder, and standing under each of the more fruitful trees, sung —
“Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
After drinking part of the contents of the cup, he threw the rest, with the fragments of the roasted apples, at the trees, amid the shouting of the company. Another song sung on such occasions was
“Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow
Hats full! caps full!
And my pockets full, too, huzza!”
Update: Tim writes: Wassailing refers to the practice of both door-to-door carol-singing on Christmas Eve and the apple wassailing on Old Twelth Night. The naming comes from the common imbibing of the wassail. Both traditions co-exist and the carolling occurs not just in cider-growing areas.
Thanks for the information, Tim. I should have been clearer about the distinction between the two traditions at the start of this post. These days wassailing does mean carolling, but it did not always have this connotation.
La Belle Cuisine, Recipe from the Gourmet Archives
4 cups apple cider
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup dark rum
1/4 cup brandy
1 tablespoon orange liqueur
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
Salt to taste
1/2 lemon, thinly sliced
1/2 orange, thinly sliced
Freshly grated nutmeg
In a saucepan bring the apple cider to a boil over medium heat, add
the brown sugar and cook mixture, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved.
Remove pan from heat and add the rum, brandy, orange liqueur,
cinnamon, cloves, allspice, salt, and fruit slices. Heat mixture over
moderate heat, stirring, 2 minutes. Pour the wassail into wine glasses
and top it with whipped cream and freshly grated nutmeg.