Friday, December 18, 2009


Tonight I'm going Christmas caroling at a local hospital with a group of my friends. This is our 33rd year. I only missed once, about 6 years ago, when I had the flu, but my friends came and sang for me that year. In a way, caroling for the sick is especially appropriate, once you know the roots of the tradition.

I doubt if the Vikings who invaded England a thousand years ago ever wished that island's inhabitants a "ves heill!" In Old Norse, it means "Be healthy!" or "Be whole!" Still, Middle Englishmen eventually picked up the salute, converting it to "waes haeil!"

These same early Englishmen already had a slew of rituals and superstitions designed to keep their crops healthy. Liquor-producing crops where specially prized, apples for cider in particular. With the coming of the frosts, bonfires were lit in apple orchards, dances performed around the trees, and cider applied both internally and externally (to both trees and people), to beseech any entities who might protect the trees through the winter, bring blossoms in the spring, and a good harvest the next year.

By the 13th century, the spelling "wassail" had appeared in print and was used not only as a good wish for human beings, but for their crops as well. The imperative became a noun that described the revelry in the orchards and elsewhere. Within another hundred years, the word had become a verb, meaning "to drink to the health of." In many dialects, it meant specifically to drink to your neighbors' health at year end.

Then came the discovery of the New World. Spices were brought back, many of which complimented the taste of the cider beautifully. Spices were expensive, though, and usually saved for rare occasions. Since the year-end tradition of cider drinking had already been established, the word "wassail" took on a new meaning: a special concoction of cider, spices, sugar, and baked apples, served at Yuletide. As the recipe spread down through Europe, wine and other fruits were substituted.

By the early 1600s, for those who could afford it, fashion dictated that a special, festive bowl be brought out for the custom, and so "wassail bowl" entered the language. About the same time, Yuletide revelers came to be known as "wassailers."

At first, wassailing took place in private homes and taverns, but more enterprising fellows began going door-to-door, singing and drinking to the health and prosperity of each household, preferably with punch supplied by the host, or at least, in exchange for a few coins or food. Some combined this custom with mummery--meaning they presented pantomimes or plays as well (I'll talk more about that in my blog next week).

During Victorian times, when Temperance Leagues abounded, wassailing morphed into the type of Christmas caroling we see today, done by church and school groups, and families. The practice usually has with no connection to drinking unless you're talking hot cocoa and warm sweet cider.

But we still sing the old blessings:

"God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress, too.
And all the little children
That 'round the table go."

To everyone this season, be healthy, be whole.

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