Wæs hæl! Drinc hæl!
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Although synonymous with Christmas, the tradition of wassailing, typically celebrated on Twelfth Night (variously January 5th or 6th), has largely been displaced by carolling. Both versions share the practice of people going door-to-door and singing, but wassailing also involves offering a drink from the 'wassail bowl' in exchange for gifts.
There is another version of wassailing, however, with ancient roots: the custom of visiting orchards in the cider-producing regions of England (chiefly the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire). This form of wassailing involves incantation and singing, the purpose being to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits thus ensuring a good harvest of fruit the following Autumn.
Whichever version you favour, the word 'wassail' seems to be a contraction of the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning 'be thou hale or", if you prefer, 'be in good health'. In the twelfth century, Danish-speakers inhabiting the Danelaw turned Waes hael, and the reply Drinc hæl, into a drinking formula, a toast widely adopted by the rest of England's population.
So, if over this festive season you wish to go a-wassailing you might consider this Victorian recipe for...
The non-alcoholic nature of this recipe can be upgraded by replacing the apple juice with scrumpy or something similar. Waes hael!