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Wassail-Trad-art - 7/1/07


"Wassail Traditions" by THL Johnnae llyn Lewis, CE.


NOTE: See also the files: wassail-msg, cider-art, cider-msg, Autmn-Holidys-art, Holiday-Celeb-lnks, Yule-msg, Ale-a-Beer-lnks, p-toasting-msg, spiced-wine-msg.





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Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Wassail Traditions

by THL Johnnae llyn Lewis, CE


        At the special request of Baroness Giovanna, I did a search on Wassail Traditions and Customs. Here is an assortment of what I found.


A Definition from 1658:


Wassail, (Sax. Waesheal, i. be in health) an ancient Ceremonious custome, still used upon twelf day at night, of going about with a great bowl of Ale, drinking of healths, taken from Rowena, the daughter of Hengistus, her Ceremony to King Vorti|ger, to whom at a banquet she delivered with her own hands a Golden Cup full of wine.


Phillips, Edward, 1630-1696?  The new world of English words, or, A general dictionary containing the interpretations of such hard words as are derived from other languages ... / collected and published by E.P. 1658.


        In 1677 Elisha Coles (1640?-1680) in his  An English dictionary defined wrote that: “Wassail, (sa. Was-heal) be in health” and  “Wassail-bowl, of Spiced Ale, on Nevv-years Eve.”



Wassail according to the OED in part means:


        “As an ordinary salutation (= 'hail' or 'farewell') the phrase, or an approximation to it, occurs both in OE. (hál wes þú, and in pl. wesað hále: ) and in ONor. (pl. verið heilir).”


        In a very long entry, OED also notes that in neither Old English or in Old Norwegian, has any trace been found of the use as drinking formulas, of the phrases represented by wassail and drinkhail.” This follows for the other Teutonic languages as well. OED postulates that the use of wassail and drinkhail “arose among the Danish-speaking inhabitants of England” becoming common sometime before the 12th centuries. The Normans saw its use as “markedly characteristic of Englishmen.” It was later recorded that the English on the night before Hastings spent their time in “weissel” and “drincheheil.”


        Geoffrey of Monmouth in circa 1140 did use it in his version of the well-known story of Rowena. Geoffrey was mistaken in attributing the term to the 5th century. Later, Nigellus Wireker (c 1190) would note that “English students at the University of Paris are praised for generosity and other virtues, but are said to be too much addicted to wessail and dringail.”


So in terms of meanings, Wassail is:  


“A salutation used when presenting a cup of wine to a guest, or drinking the health of a person, the reply being  drink-hail.” Wassail also came to mean the rather strong liquor (spiced ales) which were drunk traditionally at Twelfth-nights and Christmas-eve celebrations. Also Wassail came to mean the “custom formerly observed on Twelfth-night and New-Year's eve of drinking healths from the wassail-bowl.” Also “the person invited to drink from the wassail-bowl” was a Wassail. This leads into the meaning where a Wassail was “a carousal; riotous festivity, reveling.” As a verb, “To 'keep wassail' came to mean carousing and health-drinking.” By the early 17th century, it was also “a carol or song sung by wassailers, thus becoming a wassailing or health-drinking song.”



A selection of quotes and dates from OED includes:

C. 1300 Havelok 1246 Wyn and ale deden he fete, And made[n] hem glade and bliþe, Wesseyl ledden he fele siþe;

C. 1300 Havelok 1737 Hwan he.. fele siþes haueden wosseyled, And with gode drinkes seten longe;

1494 in Household Ordinances (1790) 121 When the steward cometh in at the hall doore with the wassell, he must crie three tymes, Wassell, wassell, wassell.

A. 1548 Hall Chronicles, Hen. VIII, 9 Then was the wassaill or banket brought in, and so brake vp Christmas.

1598 E. Guilpin Skial. (1878) 25 A wassaile on twelfe night.

1602 Shaks. Hamlet i. iv. 9 The King doth wake to night, and takes his rouse, Keepes wassels.

1607 Beaum. & Fl; Woman-Hater iii. i, Have you done your wassayl? 'tis a handsome drowsie dittie I'll assure ye, now I had as leave hear a Cat cry.

1616 B. Jonson Forest iii, The jolly wassall walkes the often round, And in their cups, their cares are drown'd.

1616 B. Jonson Masque of Christmas 2 Enter..Wassal, Like a neat Sempster, and Songster; her Page bearing a browne bowle, drest with Ribbands.

C. 1650 New Christmas Carols, Carrol for Wassel-Bowl 7 Good Dame here at your Door Our Wassel we begin.


        Much of what has come to be thought of as traditional Wassail customs may actually be traced or derived from the writings of Sir Walter Scott—


1808 Scott Marmion vi. Introd. 64 On Christmas eve.. The wassel round, in good brown bowls Garnish'd with ribbons, blithely trowls.

1816 Scott Old Mort. ix, Women, wine, and wassail, all to be had for little but the asking.

1814 Scott Lord of Isles vi. xix, But now, from England's host, the cry Thou hear'st of wassail revelry.

1808 Scott Marmion i. xxx, This was the sign the feast was o'er; It hush'd the merry wassel roar.

1808 Scott Marmion iii. Introd. 187 Of forayers, who,..home returning, fill'd the hall With revel, wassel-rout, and brawl.

1829 Scott Anne of G. xxiii, The chorus of a wassel-song, which some reveller was trolling over in his sleep.


        So here we have Wassail meaning the ale or mulled wine that is drunk from a decorated or special cup, the toasts or salutations of the season, the songs being sung, the actual festivities with much carousing, and lastly the drinking carousers.


        How one may celebrate wassail within the Society revolves around the presence or absence of alcohol. Eggnog without alcohol might be substituted or mulled cider might also stand in. Songs being sung is a given, provided there are singers and music. Toasts, as long as people remember, can be given. Excellent food can be made and eaten. Christmas in Shakespeare's England offers a number of appropriate suggestions that might be incorporated into an Society revel. Games and gaming, lord of misrule, short plays or poetry, recipes, decorations, and ceremonies. The book is out of print but may be interlibrary loaned.  



Holiday-Celeb-lnks (13K) 12/23/04   Links to medieval holiday  celebrations by Dame Aoife Finn of Ynos Mon http://www.florilegium.org/files/CELEBRATIONS/Holiday-Celeb-lnks.html


Yule-msg          (26K)  6/27/05    Yule celebrations.





Selective Sources:


Blackburn, B. & L. Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford: OUP, 1999.


Christmas in Shakespeare's England. Compiled by Maria Hubert. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1998.


Hole, Christina. A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. 1976. London: Paladin, 1984.


Simpson, J. & S. Roud.  A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: OUP, 2000.


Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd Ed. 1996.


This article appeared in the Citadel December 2005/January 2006.



Copyright 2005. 2006, 2007 by Johnna H. Holloway. <Johnna at sitka.engin.umich.edu>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org