The term wassail is derived from the Anglo-Saxon toast “waes hael”, or “good health” (the expected reply is “drinc-heil” or “drink well”). To wassail is to ceremonially drink someone’s health at Christmas, especially from a decorated bowl filled with a seasonal drink. The wassail bowl was traditionally filled with mulled ale or “lamb’s wool” and was adorned with ribbons. “Wassailers” often referred to those who went door-to-door at Christmas with a wassail bowl expecting a gratuity for a drink or those who expected the householder to fill the bowl at each stop.
The tradition of wassailing the apple trees or livestock is a vernerable one. In the seventeenth century the poet Robert Herrick noted: Wassail the trees, that they may bear/ You many a plum, and many a pear:/ For more or less fruits they will bring,/ As you do give them wassailing.
In order to ensure fertility for the coming year English farmers developed a number of variations on the wassail. In Devonshire, on Twelfth Night, men got out their weapons and went to the orchard. Selecting the oldest tree, they would form a circle and chant: Here’s to thee, old apple tree/ Whence thou mayst bud and whence thou mayst blow/ And whence thou mayst bear apples enow:/ Hats full, caps full,/ Bushels, bushels, sacks full,/ And my pockets full too!/ Huzza! Huzza!
After drinking some cider the men would discharge their (unloaded) weapons at the tree and head home. Traditionally the women of the house were to deny the men entrance until they had guessed what sort of roast was being prepared for them. The man with the correct guess presided over the evening’s entertainment. In other parts of England fruit trees were wassailed by being sprinkled with cider, beaten with sticks and bidden in rhyme to bear well. In Cornwall the song was sung with a cider jug in one jug in one hand and a branch in the other. In south Hampshire they threatened the fruit tree: Apple tree, apple tree/ Bear good fruit,/ or down with your top/ And up with your root.
This threatening of the orchard is reminiscent of a custom in Romania. The farm husband and wife will go through the orchard at Christmas, she with her hands covered in dough and he with an axe. The man will go from one barren tree to another, each time threatening to cut it down. Each time, the wife will plead for the tree by saying: “Oh no, I am sure that this tree will be as heavy with fruit next spring as my fingers are with dough this day.”
In the West Country it was also customary to wassail the oxen: on Twelfth Night men and women went into the stalls. They drank from the wassail bowl and took a cake from a basket decorated with greenery and placed it the ox’s horns. If the ox remained quite it was considered good luck. In Hereford, a cake was stuck on the horns of the ox while the oldest person present chanted: Here’s to thy pretty face , and to thy white horn,/ God send thy master a good crop of corn,/ Both wheat, rye and barley, of grains of all sort,/ And next year if we live we’ll drink to thee again. The rhyme was repeated in chorus, then the oldest threw a pint of cider in the beast’s face. If he tossed the cake forward it was a good sign.
In Sussex and Hertfordshire we also have mention of wassailing the bee-hives.