John Speller's Web Pages Wassailing Songs

John Speller's Web Pages
Wassailing Songs
Wassailing is a form of caroling around Christmas time, especially on Twelfth Night, that has its origins in pre-Christian fertility rituals. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon waes hael, meaning "be healthy."

Probably the earliest form of wassailing was "orchard-visiting" wassailing in which carols were sung and a health drunk to the apple-trees, in order encourage them to produce a good harvest of apples. This was particularly popular in the cider-producing areas of the West of England, such as Somersetshire. In some places shotguns were sometimes fired into the apple trees to scare off evil spirits.

Wassailing to the cows was also practiced in country areas, again to encourage fertility among the cattle and a good harvest. One carol associated with "cattle-wassailing" went:

Fill your cups, my merrymen all,
For here's the best ox in all the stall,
Oh! he's the best ox, there is no mistake,
So let us crown him with the Twelfth cake.

We'll drink to thee and thy white horn,
Pray God send master a good crop of cornó
Wheat, rye, and barley and all sorts of grain,
If alive at the next time, I'll drink to thee again.

The most popular form of wassailing was "house-visiting," in which young people would go from house to house caroling and carrying a wassail bowl. The young women generally carried a filled wassail bowl and offered refreshment to the houses they visited, though expecting that their bowl would be topped up. The young men tended to carry an empty wassail bowl and expect it to be filled.

The wassail bowl was filled with warm spiced wine, ale or cider. The bowl was sometimes made of wood, though many ceramic ones are known, and the wassail song from the Gower Peninsula in South Wales mentions that in this locality it was made of elderberry wood.

The Rev. R. S. Hawker (1803-1875) commented that "'When the brown bowl is filled for yule, let the dome or upper half be set on; then let the waes-haelers kneel one by one and draw up the wine with their reeds through the two bosses at the rim. Let one breath only be drawn by each of the morice for his waes-hael [some sources suggest doing it twice].' The rounded shape of the bowl for waes-hael was intended to recall the image of a mother's breast, and thus it was meant, with a touching simplicity, to blend the thought of our Christmas gladness, with the earliest nurture of the Child Jesus." Thus, though pagan in origin, the Waes-hael had by later times become a mystical Christian rite almost akin to the Eucharist.

Practically every locality had its idiosyncratic wassailing songs, and in some cases only fragments of these have survived. One that was sung at Kingston St. Mary near Taunton, for example, is known only to have contained the line,

We wish you right good luck and jolly well sail [wassail].

Sometimes the words are somewhat inscrutible, like the last two lines of the Staffordshire Wassail:

We have been walking among the leaves so green
And hither we are coming so stately to be seen
With our wassel, our jolly wassel
All joys come to you and to our wasel bowl

Good master and good mistress, as you sit by the fire
Remember us por wassellers that travel in the mire
With our wassel, our jolly wassel
All joys come to you and to our wassel bowl

Our bowl is made of the mulberrry tree
And soe is your ale of the best barley
Pray rise up master Butler and put on your golden ring
And bring to us a jug of ale, the better we shall sing

Our purse is made of the finest calves skin
We want a little silver to line it well within
Good Mr. X good Mist(ress) if that you are but wiling
Send down two of your little boys each of us a shill[ing]
We'll hand a silver napkin upon a golden spear
And come no more a wassailing until another year.

[Bishop Thomas Percy, Unpublished Papers c. 1760, Harvard University Library, as cited in: Peter Kennedy, Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, Oak, 1975 pp.231-2.]

The Carhampton Wassailing Song,sung at Carhampton near Minehead in Somerset, has the following words:

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
For to bear well, and to bear well
So merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout to the old apple tree!
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stairs,
Hip, Hip, Hooray!

In most cases harmonies/accompaniments have been added, but these wassailing songs were originally intended to be sung in unison without accompaniment, though it is known that in later times some wassailers were accompanied by instrumentalists.
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