It’s wassail season. And what is that exactly? ‘Exactly’ may be difficult. Wassailing is a very good example of how elusive traditions can be. Where they ended up is not necessarily an indication of where they started. These days wassail songs are often included in collections of Christmas carols and hymns, and that’s a very long way from their pre-Christian origins.
To begin at the beginning, or as close to it as I can guess. There was, long, long ago, a Celtic festival called La Mas Ubhail, the Feast of the Apple. The name became anglicised, phonetically, to Lamasool. It was a November fertility rite, homage to the gods in the hope of a good harvest in the coming year. Wassail has a similar root, waes hael in Old English being the imperative ‘be thou healthy’ and was addressed to the senior apple tree in the orchard.
In the apple-growing counties - mainly in the south west of England and East Anglia - Orchard Wassailing, or Apple Howling is still quite common. Every village has its own traditions, songs and incantations, but the common thread is the presentation of bread and ale or cider to the tree, to feed it and encourage it to ever greater efforts. But wassailing has another incarnation - the House Wassail, lumped in with Christmas carolling, New Year celebrations, Twelfth Night revelry and everything else that magazines nowadays refer to as The Festive Season.
Twelfth Night is the traditional time for a house wassail : a good-natured and more or less tuneful door-to-door party, wandering around the neighbourhood demanding refreshments and money with boozy menaces. The Welsh had a slightly sinister version of it called the Mari Lwyd, the Grey Mare, a tradition that’s now being revived in parts of South Wales. And very effective too. If I opened my door and saw a straw-stuffed effigy topped with a horse’s skull, I reckon I’d hand over my loose change pretty quickly.
The customary drink for wassailers is hot spiced ale or cider and one of its oldest recorded versions is a drink called Lambswool. Robert Herrick names it in his poem, Twelfth Night.
Now crown a bowl full, with gentle lamb’s wool…
Sugar, spices and ale poured over roasted apples (see, we’re back to that orchard connection?). In Ireland a more sober version used to be made using milk, presumably for junior wassailers, the Irish not usually being so fastidious about alcohol. Why was it called Lambswool? Was it named for the feast of Lamasool? Or was it because of the fleece-like appearance of the frothy ale and white apple flesh? No-one seems sure. But here is a wonderful collection of recipes for it.
Now all you need is a good song to go with it as you pass the bowl. There are many recordings around - Here we come a’wassailing is one you’ll certainly have heard, very likely sung by well-scrubbed choristers with perfect enunciation, but in my opinion a wassail song should be as raw and hearty as scrumpy cider, and there’s no finer specimen than this the Cornish Malpas Wassail sung by the Watersons on their For Pence and Spicy Ale album.
And so I wish all History Girls and our lovely readers Waes Hael!