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A pot of wassail

Wassail (/ˈwɒsəl/, /-l/; Old Norse "ves heil", Old English was hál, literally: be hale) is a beverage of hot mulled cider, drunk traditionally as an integral part of wassailing, a Medieval Christmastide English drinking ritual intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year.[1]


The word wassail comes from Old English was hál, related to the Anglo-Saxon greeting wes þú hál , meaning "be you hale"—i.e., "be healthful" or "be healthy".


Wassail is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Yuletide, drunk from a 'wassail bowl'. The earliest versions were warmed mead into which roasted crab apples were dropped and burst to create a drink called 'lambswool' drunk on Lammas day, still known in Shakespeare's time.[2] Later, the drink evolved to become a mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops and drunk from a large communal bowl.[3] Modern recipes begin with a base of wine, fruit juice or mulled ale, sometimes with brandy or sherry added. Apples or oranges are often added to the mix, and some recipes also call for beaten eggs to be tempered into the drink. Great bowls turned from wood, pottery or tin often had many handles for shared drinking and highly decorated lids; antique examples can still be found in traditional pubs.[4] Hence the first stanza of the traditional carol Gloucestershire Wassail; variations of which were known to have been sung as far back as the 1700s[5], and possibly earlier[6]:

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 unto thee.

At Carhampton, near Minehead, the Apple Orchard Wassailing is held on Old Twelfth Night (17 January) as a ritual to ask the Gods for a good apple harvest. The villagers form a circle around the largest apple tree, hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the 'good spirits' of the tree. A shotgun is fired overhead to scare away evil spirits and the group sings, the following being the last verse,

Old Apple tree, old apple tree;
We've come to wassail thee;
To bear and to bow apples enow;
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;
Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.[7]

Lamb's wool[edit]

Lamb's wool or lambswool is a variety of wassail made from ale, baked apples, sugar and spices.[8][9]

Next crowne the bowle full of
With gentle Lambs wooll,

Adde sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too,
And thus ye must doe

To make the Wassaile a swinger.[10]

Irish antiquarian Charles Vallancey proposed that the name "lambswool" was a corruption of the name of a pagan Irish festival, "Lamas Ubhal", during which a similar drink was had.[11] Alternatively, the name may derive from the drink's similar appearance to the wool of lambs.[12] Ale is occasionally replaced by ginger ale for children, especially around Halloween and New Year.


This drink would be roughly equivalent to beer or wine in many contemporary Western cultures. People drank it at social gatherings. "Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best/... please God send our master a good cask of ale..." sung throughout the towns of the Germanic nations, sending good luck to one's master in the new year.


Here's to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An' all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!

Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow! [enough]
Hats-full! Caps-full!
Bushel, bushel sacks-full!
And my pockets full, too! Hurra![13]

In the cider-producing counties in the South West of England (primarily Cornwall,[14] Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) or South East England (Kent, Sussex, Essex and Suffolk) as well as Jersey, Channel Islands; wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking to the health of trees on Twelfth Night in the hopes that they might better thrive. The purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn.[15] The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next; the wassail Queen is then lifted into the boughs of the tree where she places toast soaked in wassail from the clayen cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). In some counties the youngest boy or "Tom Tit" will stand in for the Queen and hang the cider soaked toast in the tree. Then an incantation is usually recited.

A folktale from Somerset reflecting this custom tells of the Apple Tree Man, the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and in whom the fertility of the orchard is thought to reside. In the tale a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the Apple Tree Man who reveals to him the location of buried gold.[16][17]

Modern music[edit]

British folk rock band Steeleye Span opened their third album "Ten Man Mop or Mr. Reservoir Butler Rides Again" (1971) with an extended, minor-key version of "Gower Wassail," Tim Hart singing the traditional verses and the others joining the chorus.

The British rock band Blur released a cover of the song, with each member taking a verse. The release was limited to 500 7-inch pressings, which were given out at a concert in 1992. The version of 'The Wassailing Song' performed by Blur was later adapted in a recording by The Grizzly Folk, who have stated that the arrangement bears a close resemblance to the 'Gloucestershire Wassail'.[6]

In her song 'Oh England My Lionheart', on the 1978 album Lionheart, Kate Bush sings "Give me one wish, and I'd be wassailing in the orchard, my English rose."

The alternative rock band Half Man Half Biscuit from Tranmere, England included a song named 'Uffington Wassail' on their 2000 album 'Trouble over Bridgwater'. With its references to the Israeli transsexual Eurovision contestant Dana International, the Sealed Knot English Civil War re-enactment society, and also to the skier Vreni Schneider, the meaning of the songs title in this context is a little obscure.

In 2013 Folk Rock musician Wojtek Godzisz (formerly of the band Symposium) created an arrangement of the traditional Gloucestershire Wassail words with original music for the Pentacle Drummers first Annual Wassail festival (2013), simply called 'Wassail'.[18] As of 2013, the song was slated to be included on his next album.

For the Pentacle Drummers second Wassail festival (2014) the Pagan rock band Roxircle also wrote a Wassail song especially for the event called 'Wassail (Give Thanks To The Earth)'. The Pentacle Drummers encourage their headline acts to write a song centered around wassailing, a way to keep the tradition alive.

The English neo-progressive rock band Big Big Train[19] released an EP entitled 'Wassail' in 2015, named for the title track.

Yorkshire based folk singer, Kate Rusby included the track 'Cornish Wassail' on her 2015 album, The Frost Is All Over.[20]


It was mentioned in the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000. Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo ask Mike Nelson to provide some, and when asked to further explain what exactly wassail was, they admitted to having no idea, though they offer a guess that it might be an "anti-inflammatory". Upon actually getting some, they describe it as "skunky", discovering it to be a 500-year-old batch.

It was mentioned and explained to Bing Crosby by Frank Sinatra in a special episode of the Frank Sinatra Show entitled "Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank" released December 20, 1957.[21][22]

In 2004, the alternative Christmas message was presented by The Simpsons who close out with a cup of "traditional British wassail". When the director cuts, they spit it out in disgust, with Bart remarking that it tasted "like hurl".

Wassail was featured on the BBC Two special Oz and Hugh Drink to Christmas, which aired in December 2009. Oz Clarke and Hugh Dennis sample the drink and the wassailing party in Southwest England as part of their challenge to find Britain's best Christmas drinks.

During the episode "We Two Kings" on the NBC sitcom Frasier, the title character's brother Niles asks to borrow his wassail bowl; when Frasier's father Martin asks why they can't just use a punch bowl, Niles retorts, "Then it wouldn't be Wassail then would it?" In response, Martin looks up 'wassail' in the dictionary, defined as 'a Christmas punch'.

In the Good Eats holiday special episode "The Night Before Good Eats," Alton Brown is given a wassail recipe by St. Nicholas which he then must make to appease a mob of angry carolers.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Martin, Scott C. (16 December 2014). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives. SAGE Publications. p. 1804. ISBN 9781483374383. A wassail can be performed on any date between Christmas Eve and Old Twelfth Night (January 17).
  2. ^ BBC Early Music Show, Here We Come a-Wassailing, broadcast 28 December 2014
  3. ^ Zimmerman, Jereme. "The Communal Origins of a Festive New Year's Drinking Tradition" – via www.yesmagazine.org. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Brown, Alton (2009). "Good Eats: Twas' The Night Before Good Eats". foodnetwork.com. Good Eats. Retrieved 10 December 2014.
  5. ^ Husk, William Henry. Songs of the Nativity, London: John Camden Hotten, Chiswick Press, 1884, p. 150 https://archive.org/details/songsofnativityb00husk/page/150
  6. ^ a b Wilks, Jon. "Wassail All Over the World". The Grizzly Folk. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  7. ^ Christian, Roy (1972). Old English Customs. Pub. David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-5741-7. P.113.
  8. ^ http://recipewise.co.uk/lambswool Authentic Wassail Drink Recipe – RecipeWISE.
  9. ^ "drinking lambs-wool". Wovember. 4 November 2011.
  10. ^ From Oxford Night Caps, by Richard Cook, Published 1835
  11. ^ Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicus, Vol. III, by Charles Vallencey, Published 1786
  12. ^ Robert Nare's Glossary of the Works of English Authors, Published 1859
  13. ^ Bellinger, Robin. "Wassailing". the Paris Review Daily. Retrieved 23 December 2011.
  14. ^ "Cornish Wassailing".
  15. ^ "Wassailing". England in Particular. Common Ground. Retrieved 27 December 2010.
  16. ^ Briggs, Katharine (1976). An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0394409184.
  17. ^ Briggs, Katharine; Tongue, Ruth (1965). Folktales of England. University of Chicago Press. pp. 44–46. ISBN 978-0226074948.
  18. ^ Godzisz, Wojtek (January 2013). "Wassail".
  19. ^ "Big Big Train".
  20. ^ "CD: Kate Rusby - The Frost Is All Over - The Arts Desk". theartsdesk.com.
  21. ^ "Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank" – via www.imdb.com.
  22. ^ "Happy Holidays With Bing and Frank (Classic)". Vimeo.
  23. ^ "the-night-before-good-eats".


  • Bladey, Conrad Jay (2002). Do the Wassail: A Short Guide to Wassail, Songs, Customs, Recipes and Traditions: How to Have a Fine Geegaw of a Wassail!, Hutman Productions, ISBN 0-9702386-7-3.
  • Gayre, Robert (1948). Wassail! In Mazers of Mead: an account of mead, metheglin, sack and other ancient liquors, and of the mazer cups out of which they were drunk, with some comment upon the drinking customs of our forebears, Phillimore & Co. Ltd., London.

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