Where has all the wassailing gone?

Not enough wassailing is done in this day and age, in my opinion. It’s a lost talent, overdue a comeback, and this year I intend to get right back into it. There’s no time to lose, either – wassailing is best enjoyed over the festive season, and come late January, wassailing is rarely found for neither love nor money.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what in the world a wassail might be, so you’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for wassailing guidance. Essentially, there are two main forms, one that takes place very definitely post-Christmas, and one that you can feel a little more relaxed about. We’ll start with the latter.

Wassailing, in this instance, can be seen as a form of rowdy carol singing. In centuries past, wassailing well required peasants and/or forced entry. I doubt it’d go down well if I insisted on either in this article, so for a decent 21st century wassail we’ll have to make do with a somewhat boisterous sing-along. After all, the word itself comes from the Middle English toast, “waes hael”, meaning “be thou hale”, which in turn means “be in good health”. And if you require a song with which to demonstrate your good health, ‘The Wassailing Song’ is thought to have hit the top of the local Christmas charts in Gloucestershire circa 1790. They’ve been singing Christmas songs for almost as long as Cliff Richard has.

The phrase, “waes hael” dates the activity back to pre-Norman times, so if you do decide to get outside and try a quick wassail, you’ll be following a time-honoured tradition. At its most friendly, it seems to have involved a merry but financially challenged band of singers turning up outside rich peoples’ doors and singing heartily for their supper. In its less sociable format, the singers would cross the threshold and make their gluttony know. “Figgy pudding” was a common craving, and the mob would further insist that, “we won’t go until we’ve got some, so bring some right here.” You may have heard about it.

The second form of wassailing, and one that appeals to the ageing raver in me, is the kind that took place beneath the green leaves. In another ode to wassailing (there are many), the singers call for “wassailing among the leaves of green”. It sounds idyllic, but that’s because they fail to mention the alcohol, the girls in trees, the soggy toast, the pots, the pans or the freakout.

In order to perform this form of wassail, you will need some cider, a wassailing bowl, a Wassailing Queen, some toast, an incantation, half of your kitchen and a line of official gunsmen (not any old gunsmen will do, so don’t go getting any ideas). Begin by visiting your local orchard and wetting the roots of the trees with the cider (poured from the wassailing bowl). Next, hoist your queen into the branches of the tree and get her to feed the spirits with the toast. Be sure to marinade the toast in the cider before you begin, though. The tree spirits know what they like.

You can find a number of incantations online – make sure you get one that encourages the trees to grow strong and tall and to produce a decent yield. What’s the point, otherwise?

Once you’ve finished intoning, get the party started. Pots and pans are all you need to provide a decent beat, but feel free to involve decks if you want to bring it up to date. Don’t forget what you’re there to do, though. There are likely to be other orchards in the area, and there’s only one Twelfth Night. A quick freakout is all you need to get the job done.

If you find all of this too much, the good news is that there are still pockets of the West Country that do this annually, so you needn’t lead the wassailing if you don’t have the confidence. And let’s face it, you wouldn’t want your first wassail to sour the experience, now, would you? Not when it’s about to make such a massive comeback.

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4 thoughts on “Where has all the wassailing gone?

  1. You also need to remember (in the 2nd type of wassailing at least) to hit the trees on the trunks, good and hard to get the sap flowing for the new year. Don’t damage the trees obviously, so don’t hit at branches and don’t pull anything off the tree (unless it’s ripe fruit)

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