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The Silurian Morris Men stare into a wassail fire
Photo credit: Joolz Webb/Picfair

Wassailing: everything you wanted to know but never thought to ask

Ready to start wassailing? Not even sure what wassailing is? Here's everything you need to know to get a good wassail going.

Not enough wassailing is done in this day and age, in our opinion. It’s a lost talent, overdue a comeback, and this year we intend to get right back into it. There’s no time to lose, either – wassailing is best enjoyed over the festive season, and come late January, wassailing is rarely found for neither love nor money. 

We’ve been thinking a lot recently about what in the world a wassail might be, so you’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for wassailing guidance. Essentially, there are two main forms, one that takes place very definitely post-Christmas, and one that you can feel a little more relaxed about in the run-up to the big day. We’ll start with the latter.

What is wassailing?

Wassailing, in this instance, can be seen as a form of rowdy carol singing. In centuries past, wassailing well required peasants and/or forced entry. We doubt it’d go down well if we insisted on either in this article, so for a decent 21st century wassail we’ll have to make do with a somewhat boisterous sing-along. ‘The Wassailing Song’ (sometimes known as ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’ – Roud 209) is thought to have hit the top of the local Christmas charts in around 1790. They’ve been singing Christmas songs in Gloucester for almost as long as Cliff Richard has.

What does wassail mean?

The word “wassail” comes from the Middle English toast, “waes hael”, meaning “be thou hale”, which in turn means “be in good health”. The phrase, “waes hael” dates back to pre-Norman times, so if you do decide to get outside and try a quick wassail, you’ll be following a time-honoured tradition.

If someone says “waes hael” to you, with or without warning, the appropriate answer is “drinc hael”, which certainly suits most people’s pre-Christmas social activities well enough.

Is wassailing the same as carol singing?

At its most friendly, pre-Christmas wassailing seems to have involved a merry but financially challenged band of singers turning up outside rich peoples’ doors and singing heartily for their supper. In its less sociable format, the singers would cross the threshold and make their gluttony know. “Figgy pudding” was a common craving, and the mob would further insist that, “we won’t go until we’ve got some, so bring some right here.” You may have heard about that before.

In this form, therefore, wassailing can be seen as a precursor to carol singing. However, there’s more than one way to wassail.

How to perform a successful wassail, post-Christmas

The second form of wassailing, and one that appeals to the ageing ravers in us, is the kind that took place beneath the green leaves. In another ode to wassailing (there are many), the singers call for “wassailing among the leaves of green”. It sounds idyllic, but that’s because they fail to mention the alcohol, the girls in trees, the soggy toast, the pots, the pans or the freakout.

In order to perform this form of wassail, you will need some cider, a wassailing bowl, a Wassailing Queen, some toast, an incantation, half of your kitchen and a line of official gunsmen (not any old gunsmen will do, so don’t go getting any ideas). Begin by visiting your local orchard and wetting the roots of the trees with the cider (poured from the wassailing bowl). Next, hoist your queen into the branches of the tree and get her to feed the spirits with the toast. Be sure to marinade the toast in the cider before you begin, though. The tree spirits know what they like.

You can find a number of incantations online – make sure you get one that encourages the trees to grow strong and tall and to produce a decent yield. What’s the point, otherwise?

Once you’ve finished intoning, get the party started. Pots and pans are all you need to provide a decent beat, but feel free to involve decks if you want to bring it up to date. Don’t forget what you’re there to do, though. There are likely to be other orchards in the area, and there’s only one Twelfth Night. A quick freakout is all you need to get the job done.

If you find all of this too much, the good news is that there are still pockets of the UK that do this annually, so you needn’t lead the wassailing if you don’t have the confidence. And let’s face it, you wouldn’t want your first wassail to sour the experience, now, would you? Not when it’s about to make such a massive comeback.