Monday, January 05, 2009

Wassail, Wassail All Over the Town


“When they were all tired of blind-man's buff, there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper, and a mighty bowl of wassail, something smaller than an ordinary wash-house copper, in which the hot apples were hissing and bubbling with a rich look, and a jolly sound, that were perfectly irresistible.”

~ Charles Dickens


From the Colonial Williamsburg website:
As traditional and familiar as most any English Christmas carol, the song is among the season's more anachronistic, an evocation of a holiday custom that pretty much puzzles modern celebrants: wassailing.

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.

Wassailing? What's wassailing?

The term has evolved in English for more than a millennium, from its origins as a simple greeting, to its use as a toast in ritualized drinking, to its absorption into holiday customs rooted in notions of social propriety and the intentional suspension thereof.

The text of the carol employs noun and verb forms of "wassail," a word derived from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál and meaning "be in good health" or "be fortunate." The phrase found first use as a simple greeting, but the Danish-speaking inhabitants of England seem to have turned was hail, and the reply drink hail, into a drinking formula adopted widely by the indigenous population of England—so much so that the Norman conquerors who arrived in the eleventh century regarded the toast as distinctive of the English natives.

"Wassail" appears in English literature as a salute as early as the eighth-century poem Beowulf, in references such as "warriors' wassail and words of power" and:

The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.


Recording similar usage, the anonymous Anglo-Norman Poet, who witnessed the Saxon toasting cry before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, wrote:

Rejoice and wassail
Pass the bottle and drink healthy
Drink backwards and drink to me
Drink half and drink empty.


***
In parts of Medieval Britain, a different sort of wassailing emerged: farmers wassailed their crops and animals to encourage fertility. An observer recorded, "They go into the Ox-house to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to their health." The practice continued into the eighteenth century, when farmers in the west of Britain toasted the good health of apple trees to promote an abundant crop the next year. Some placed cider-soaked bread in the branches to ward off evil spirits. In other locales, villagers splashed the trees with cider while firing guns or beating pots and pans. Sometimes they sang special songs:

Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to th'old apple tree
Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear.


***
It didn't take long for wassailing in expectation of recompense to merge with other manifestations of holiday "misrule" that characterized old English Christmas—an inheritance from the ancient Romans. As at the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, at Christmastide the Anglo-Saxons turned normal social relationships symbolically and temporarily upside down. Men and women might cross-dress and act the part of the opposite sex, school boys bar out their teachers, or a peasant be named "Lord of Misrule." The wealthy were expected to share their bounty with poorer villagers and servants. One manifestation of this, the tipping of servants—called "boxing" after the clay boxes with money slits English servants once used or their collections—found its way to colonial America. English and Canadian calendars still mark Boxing Day as December 26, the traditional feast day of St. Stephen, and the concept survives wherever an employer gives a Christmas bonus or when we tip at the holiday those who render us services throughout the year.

At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions. In exchange, the lord of the manor had the goodwill of his people for another year. At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth:

Again we assemble, a merry New Year
To wish each one of the family here....
May they of potatoes and herrings have plenty,
With butter and cheese, and each other dainty.

The story of toasting "wassail" begins when Renwein presented King Vortigern
with a cup of wine and the salute "Was hail."


[More]

The Gloucester Wassail:
1. Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee,
Drink to thee, drink to thee,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

2. Here is to Cherry* and to his right cheek,
Pray God send my master a good piece of beef,
And a good piece of beef that may we all see;
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.
Drink to thee, drink to thee,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

* The name of a favourite horse.

3. Here is to Cherry and to his right eye,
Pray God send my master a good Christmas pie,
And a good Christmas pie that may we all see
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.
Drink to thee, drink to thee,
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

4. Here is to Cherry and to his right arm,
May God send my master a good crop of corn,
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.
Drink to thee, drink to thee,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

5. Here is to Cherry and to his left ear,
Pray God send my master a barrel of beer,
And a barrel of beer that may we all see
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee,
Drink to thee, drink to thee,
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

6. Here’s to our cow and to her long tail
Pray God send our master he never may fail
A bowl of strong beer; I pray you draw near,
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear.
We’ll drink to thee, drink to thee,
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear.

7. Come, butler, come fill us a bowl of the best,
Then I hope that your soul in heaven may rest;
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small,
Then down fall butler, bowl and all!
We’ll drink to thee, drink to thee,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

8. Where is the maid with the lily white smock,
That do trip to the door and draw back the lock?
o let us all in and seek how you do,
Saying : Nan, if you will, we will welcome you too,
We’ll drink to thee, drink to thee,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.


Was hail!



Links:
The Wassail Page!!!!
Wassailing
Wassailing and Mumming
Wassailing! - Notes On The Songs And Traditions
Wassailing through History

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