Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.
There is nothing sinister in those words, one would think. For most people, this is a quaint, old-fashioned Christmas carol with lyrics that most people don't understand. In some places, "wassailing" has been changed to "Christmas-ing" or "singing" or "caroling." Changing that one word actually make the song make even less sense, believe-it-or-not.
The word "wassail" is an ancient word, though there is some disagreement about where it began, we can find mention of it as far back as the 1300's. It started out as a word of greeting - a salutation of health, especially used when people were in their cups (or wanted to be). According to Historic-UK.com, "Anglo-Saxon tradition dictated that at the beginning of each year, the lord of the manor would greet the assembled multitude with the toast waes hael."
You can even find the word mentioned in Shakespeare's Hamlet, when the depressed prince is muttering about the king. "The king doth wake to-night, and takes his rouse,/Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels..." (Act I, Scene IV)
Later, in about the 1700's in England, wassailing meant a specific activity: caroling house to house and begging for food, money, or entertainment.
Wassailing could get rough, likely depending on the culture of the neighborhood and the sort of group one got together for the event. Modern evidence has found that young men might get together and carouse, more than carol.
From the above carol, here's another verse:
Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
And who can forget the carol with the lines, "O bring us a figgy pudding" and "we won't go until we get some." Yes, wassailers could come demanding what they thought their due - more alcohol, coins, and food. If they didn't get what they wanted, some groups were noted to resort to vandalism of the house that would not provide. But that brings us to this part of our song:
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours' children,
Whom you have seen before.
On the whole, though, wassailing was a tradition wherein the poor of the neighborhood could come together and ask, in a socially acceptable manner, for a hand-out. In return, they would leave their blessing upon the house that offered charity.
The refrain from our song:
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.
Generally speaking, people would go "wassailing" usually on Twelfth Night. We could write several articles alone on the traditions surrounding that portion of the Christmas holiday season.
Sometimes in the middle of the 19th century, wassailing and caroling merged. They were two separate events, one meant to edify the listeners and the other meant as a way to go about begging. In North America, however, it's not uncommon to offer carolers a special treat when they grace your doorstep.
It's an interesting tradition, and while singing Christmas songs and hymns at the doors of our neighbors has been going on for several centuries, there was some fear that the tradition would die out - in 1822 a gentleman named William Hone wrote: "Carols begin to be spoken of as not belonging to this century and yet no one, that I am aware of, has attempted a collection of these fugitives." Hone printed a list of 89 carols, but neglected to include lyrics or music. Many of those carols are now lost to time.
If you find yourself curious about the wassail songs of old, many are listed (with links for listening) on Hymns and Carols of Christmas. Link below.
So next time you hear carolers, be friendly and warm, appreciate their music, and be grateful you didn't live in an age when a wassail meant feeding a crowd of people in order to avoid having your house and kitchen ransacked. :-)
Historic UK: Wassailing
Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Kentucky New Era
Wikipedia Article with Great Sources
Wikipedia on Twelfth Night
Recipe for Wassail (Yup, it was a special drink too.)
Sally Britton is the author of six historical romance titles, set in the Regency time period. All six can be found on her author page at Amazon.com. Sally regularly discusses writing, research, and her work on her Facebook reader group - and all are welcome to join.