- Amongst all the calendar customs which popular folklore enthusiasts have claimed as remnants of luck-bringing rituals, wassailing is the only one that has a relatively clear and undisputed claim to this lineage. The very name, wassail, comes from wxs hxil meaning 'Be healthy' which in Anglo-Saxon was used as a salutation or toast in its own right. There are two basic forms of this many-faceted custom, and both are probably of some considerable antiquity. The first is a house-*visiting custom, wishing health to neighbours, and the other is what could be termed a 'field-visiting' custom, wishing health to, usually, fruit trees, but also sometimes other farm crops, animals, and so on. The proper day for wassailing varied from place to place, but was always in midwinter, at *Christmas, or *New Year, and the name also varies considerably, including vessel-cup, waysailing, and howling.In the house-visiting version, young women went about the neighbourhood with a bowl of drink, often spiced ale, dressed up with garlands and ribbons, singing or reciting a set of verses that wished luck to the inhabitants, and naturally they expected money or food in return. The drink could be of any suitably festive sort, but was often described as Lamb's Wool, made from spiced ale or cider and baked apples. Later instances of the custom involve men and women, but most of the earlier references take it for granted that it was a female custom, and although the actual words may vary, the basic structure and import of the verses do not differ a great deal from place to place:Wassail, wassail all over the town Our toast it is white, our ale it is brownOur bowl it is made of a maplin tree We be good fellows all, I drink to thee.Successive verses salute the horse, the cow, the maids, and the butler (Gloucestershire: Time's Telescope (1814), 3).As an alternative or addition to the drink in the bowl, many wassailers carried a box with one or two dolls inside to represent the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, decorated on the outside with flowers, ribbons, evergreens, and so on. Well-made examples had a glass lid for the box, which was covered by a white cloth, so that the contents could be 'shown' on each visit. The song sung by these visitors was more likely to be a *Christmas carol, such as 'The Seven Joys of Mary', and it could be carried out by a single individual or a small group. This custom seems to have become increasingly rare during the second half of the 19th century.The second form of wassailing was much more of a man's custom. Again, New Year was the favourite time, but groups might be found any time over the Christmas/New Year season. The custom involved visiting the local orchards and wassailing the trees to encourage a good crop in the coming year. Songs would be sung, the trunks beaten with sticks or splashed with cider, cider-soaked toast might be laid at the roots or placed in the branches, there was much cheering, and, usually, guns were fired into the air. The verses were normally on the lines of:Here stands a good old apple tree, stand fast rootEvery little twig bear an apple bigHats full, caps full, and three score sacks fullHip! Hip! Hurrah!(Edward Swanton, Bygone Haslemere (1914), 285)This form of wassailing lasted much longer than the house-visit custom, and can still be seen at Curry Rivel (Somerset) and has been revived elsewhere. Many sources link wassailing with the West Country, but it was widespread all over the country. In Sussex, for example, it was called 'Apple Howling', a name that goes back at least to the 17th century (Sussex Archaeological Collections 1 (1848), 110).The earliest references to come to light so far are to c.1486-93 for payments for wassails at New Year at St Mary De Pre Priory, St Albans (Victoria County History: Hertford, iv. 431) and to 1585 at Fordwich, in Kent (Hutton, 1996: 46), and it is likely that more will be discovered as research into early sources continues.■ Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 223-4, 284-8; Hutton, 1996: 13-14, 45-63.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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