Wassailing - the Pagan Roots of Christmas Caroling
In today's America, you won't find too many places where groups of people still go door to door, singing Christmas carols to their neighbors. Yet, most of us are familiar with the idea of Christmas caroling and it has always been part of our collective imagination about the holiday season.
But where does this tradition come from? You might be surprised to learn that it has its roots in an ancient pagan ritual called "wassailing".
There are two traditions of wassailing. The house-visiting wassail is where groups of people go from house to house, wishing their neighbors health and good fortune for the new year. The orchard-visiting wassail is a ritual for waking up the apple tree spirits for the coming spring and to ensure a good harvest in Autumn.
The House-Visiting Wassail
In the house-visiting wassail, people would prepare some sort of beverage, like cider or "wassail", a hot drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and sugar. It sometimes had a frothy top that earned it the name "Lamb's Wool".
The wassail was carried in a large vessel, either shaped like a giant, stout goblet, or like a large bowl with handles on the sides.
Going from house to house, the group of people would sing songs in the hopes of receiving a little food or a few coins. Sometimes, they would challenge the homeowner to riddles or use a combination of wit and persuasion to try to gain entry to the house. If successful, the homeowner rewarded them with food or money.
In thanks for his kindness, the wassailers would offer the homeowner a drink from the bowl or they'd drink to the health of him and his family. Wealthy farmers or lords of manor were often targeted and if they refused to donate or were thought to be stingy, they risked getting their property vandalized, much like the idea of the Halloween "trick-or-treat".
From Wassailing to Christmas Caroling
How did wassailing turn into Christmas caroling? It's easy to see how a situation with groups of people wandering the streets at night, singing and drinking alcohol, is asking for trouble.
By the Middle Ages, the happy tradition of wassailing began to degrade into a form of drunken begging. Poor people used it as an excuse to enter the homes of the rich, some of whom were happy to share a little of their their food, drink, and riches with their less well-to-do neighbors.
Others weren't quite so pleased. The English scholar and jurist, John Seldon, remarked, "Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys."
In describing the unruly, or even scary, nature of these house-visits, folklorist Hannah Harvester writes, "drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes".
Then came the efforts to tame Christmas. In 17th century England, the Puritans looked down upon the revelry and merry-making associated with Christmas. They felt Christmas should be a time for solemn contemplation and nowhere did God call upon the people to celebrate the birth of Christ with extravagant feasting, drinking, and singing. To them, this behavior was not just inappropriate, it was sinful.
Led by the statesman Oliver Cromwell, in 1644 and 1647, Parliament effectively banned Christmas, a period lasting for about 20 years. During this time, people continued to celebrate, singing and feasting secretly. It was not until the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, that the laws became null and people were allowed again to openly celebrate.
In the Victorian era of the mid- to late-1800's, upper class citizens made an effort to domesticate the holiday, focusing it on children, and creating an organized charity to lessen the need for begging. At the same time, they promoted carol-singing at home, in church, and at outdoor parks. Over time, caroling became what we think of it as today, with friendly visits to neighbors, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Some of the songs we sing today still have traces of wassailing in them. In the beloved song "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", the lines "Now, bring us some figgy pudding" and "we won't go until we get some, so bring some out here!" are references to these times.
The Orchard-Visiting Wassail
Wassailing traditionally takes place around the time of the pagan new year, January 5th or January 17th if you follow the Julian calendar (a.k.a. "Old Twelvey"). Just after the winter solstice (Yule), this is the time of year in the northern hemisphere, when it is still cold, the days are short, and the earth remains in a death-like slumber.
Imagine, centuries ago, long before we had modern heating and electricity, television, the internet, and texting, there wasn't much to do in the winter time. It got dark early, it was cold, often freezing, and you might run out of food if you didn't have a good harvest or if you ate too much of your stockpile too early in the season. It's easy to see why people associated winter with death and the time when the boundary between the living and the spirit worlds was at its most permeable.
It also easy to understand why they might be so eager to get a jumpstart on spring, which was exactly what the orchard-visiting wassail was about.
This ritual, meant to awaken the apple tree spirits from their winter sleep and hasten the first stirrings of life, also drove away evil spirits that might spoil a good harvest in Autumn.
Every village has its own version of the ceremony, but they generally had the same core elements. A wassail king and queen would lead a torch-lit procession to the largest and oldest tree in the orchard, with people singing or crashing pots and pans. Circling the tree, the group chanted phrases and rhymes encouraging the tree to wake up, alternating with the wassail king praising the tree for its harvest from last year and asking it to do even better this year.
In some rituals, the tree is beaten around the trunk and low branches with sticks to help it "wake up".
Lifted into the branches of the tree, the wassail queen hung pieces of toast soaked in wassail, as a gift to the tree spirits. Sometimes the youngest boy in the group, called "Tom Tit", performed this task. The toast also attracted robins in the coming days, who represented the good spirits of the tree.
Everyone then drinks a toast to the health of the apple tree and the wassail king pours the remaining drink around the tree's roots as a way of giving something back. The people make as much noise as possible, shouting, singing, or banging pots and pans, to awaken the tree and a few shots are fired to scare away evil spirits.
The wassail was the first fertility ritual of the pagan year and marked a return to normalcy, after the dark, perilous days of mid-winter and the Wild Hunt, the dangerous, ghostly procession that raged through the night skies.
It is still performed today, especially in parts of England known for the growing of cider apples and pears.
The word wassail is believed to come from the Old English phrase "was hál", which meant "be hale" or "good health".
Thank you for joining me on this short exploration into the history of wassailing. I hope you found it fascinating to see how some of our holiday traditions are rooted in ancient customs.
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Christmas carolers: Irish Defence Forces, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Steaming pot of wassail: Jeremy Tarling from London, United Kingdom, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Oliver Cromwell: Steve Punter, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Snowy tree landscape: "Wintery wassail", cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Neil Owen - geograph.org.uk/p/5710568
Wassailing, West Sussex: Glyn Baker / Twelfth Night Tradition
Waking the apple tree spirit: Glyn Baker / Wassail