Waes Hael

Wassail Bowl

Picture courtesy of Google Images

‘Waes Hael’ is an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning ‘good health’. In modern English this has come down to us as ‘Wassail’. Since ancient times groups of people have gone out ‘Wassailing’ on either New Years Eve or Twelfth Night.

By custom wassailing can be divided into two distinct groups. One custom was to go from door to door bringing good wishes to the household and the other custom was to go wassailing in the fields and, especially in the cider producing counties of the West Country, into orchards to bless the trees to ensure a good crop for the coming year.

The wassail itself was originally a drink made from mulled ale, wine or cider blended with spices, honey and perhaps an egg or two. It could contain roasted apples and this gave it the alternative name ‘Lambs Wool’ because the pulp of the apples looked a bit like fleece floating on the drink. Many recipes for wassail, both traditional and more modern, can be found on the internet. The drink was served in a large bowl or goblet made from wood, or sometimes pewter or silver, passed from one person to the next. (Jesus College at Oxford University has a wassail bowl which is covered with silver and can hold 10 gallons!)

At each stop the ‘Wassailers’ would sing special wassail songs or carols and it is from this tradition that we now have carol singers doing the rounds singing Christmas Carols in the days leading up to Christmas. Each area of the country had its own particular wassail carols, several of which have come down to us today. In some areas the tradition only ceased as recently as the 1960’s and this is perhaps why at least two of these songs have become well-known and I learnt them both as a child.

One of these is known as The Gloucestershire Wassail. Here is the first verse:

Wassail, wassail all over the town.
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made of the good maple tree;
with the wassailing bowl we drink unto thee.

There are several different versions to this song but the version I am most familiar with continues with verses wishing good health to various livestock owned by the householder, such as ‘So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek,’ and ‘Here’s health to the ox and to his right eye,’: – you get the gist.

More familiar, and perhaps more suitable for New Years Eve is simply known as The Wassail Song, or ‘Here we come a-wassailing’. For those who are interested the words and music for both of these Wassail Carols are free to download from ChristmasCarolMusic.org. Here you will also find lists of recordings of these songs – including versions from bands such as Blur and Steeleye Span.

Here now is the full version of The Wassail Song as I learnt it, again there are others:

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

We are not daily beggars who beg from door to door,
but we are neighbours’ children whom you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

God bless the master of this house, likewise his mistress too,
and all the little children that around the table go.
Love and joy come to you
and to you your wassail too.
May God bless you and send you a Happy New Year,
may God send you a Happy New Year.

Waes Hael to one and all!

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. flahertylandscape
    Jan 02, 2017 @ 14:21:51

    Yeah, right, I really like these stories about how trees and plants and the things we get from the landscape take their place in music and continue beyond three generations. You quoted:
    ‘Wassail, wassail all over the town.
    Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
    Our bowl it is made of the good maple tree;
    with the wassailing bowl we drink unto thee.’
    The best in 2017. 🙂

    Reply

  2. julespaige
    Jan 02, 2017 @ 14:45:24

    Thank you for this wonderful history.
    During the Spanish Inquisition (I learned) that there were also ‘carolers’ who were Jewish who sang certain songs to the unmarked Jewish homes…and once recognized by the family, were welcome into the home to celebrate Chanukah.

    There is a http://www.dictionary.com/browse/ladino Ladino Song Hebrew/Spanish language mix modern song called https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocho_Kandelikas .
    However I am sure there were older songs that were used by the Ladino community. Like the Twelve Days of Christmas had/have more than one meaning. Though many dispute that there are hidden meanings to The Twelve Days of Christmas http://www.12days.com/faq.htm or even nursery rhymes like ‘Ring Around the Rosie is associated with the Black Plague.

    Your article here reminds me of the question of why tankards of old had glass bottoms. And the answer is because that when one was drinking in the tavern that they could see who was entering or perhaps preparing to do them harm.

    I’m trying to end on a positive note. But history isn’t always pleasant. I did read the other day that when a woman got to the cashier with her holiday purchases and credit card was denied that the gal next in line paid for the woman and even tried to remain anonymous, but was found. And I think the two have become friendly if not friends. 🙂

    Reply

    • Libby
      Jan 02, 2017 @ 15:59:51

      Thanks for the info about the Jewish carolers Jules, very interesting. Yes I have also heard that there are hidden meanings in The Twelve Days of Christmas. It is also suggested that the Christmas Carol ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ has links to Wassailing via its verses ‘So give us some figgy pudding’, and ‘We won’t go until we’ve got some’ – said to be in the wassailing spirit!
      ‘Ring, a-ring a roses’ (as we know it here) as you say, is associated with the plague – hence the ‘all fall down’ at the end. Fascinating topic.

      Reply

  3. simonjkyte
    Jan 13, 2017 @ 14:33:28

    waes thu hael!

    Reply

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