What is… Wassailing?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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Wassailing is the practice of going carolling from house to house at Christmastide in exchange for food and drink.

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Is binge drinking really a modern phenomenon, a forlorn symptom of today’s Broken Britain?

Take a good hard look at Hogarth’s Gin Lane or a 19th-century temperance hymnbook (‘Touch not the purple sparkling cup, for a serpent lurks within!’). Or, better still, the purportedly quaint, Christmas-card-sanctified practice of wassailing.

Back in feudal times, the real thing was probably closer to alcohol-fuelled trick-or-treating, but with perhaps an extra twist of menace. Something of that survives in that rousing up-tempo carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas, with its demands for ‘figgy pudding’ and ‘good cheer’ – ie beer, and lots of it – followed by the still faintly minatory, ‘And we won’t go until we get some’.

Of course, this may have been good-natured banter sometimes… but more often there would have been at least a simmering undertone of good old-fashioned class resentment.

Originally it was the peasantry who presented themselves on the Lord of the Manor’s doorstep on Twelfth Night, and received food and drink in exchange for blessings and pledges of goodwill.

With time and a shift in social stratification, the target (I use the word advisedly) might be any wealthy person, the wassailers any group of drink-filled men, and failure to dispense appropriate largesse might be met with curses, or worse.

The origins of the word ‘Wassail’ lie the Middle English ‘waes hael’, and probably before that in the Old Norse ‘ves heill’ – ‘be well’. If you’re partial to ancient formalities the correct response is ‘drinc hael’ – ‘drink well’. (I might try reviving that.)

Norse roots suggest that the practice is older than Christianity, and the seasonal connection is more to do with the kind of pagan midwinter rituals designed to encourage sun and vegetable growth to return after the darkest, deadest time of the year.

In cider-producing parts of the country, the wassail health-wish was often addressed to the precious apple and pear trees, to an accompaniment of raucous singing and banging of cooking pots, and of course lots and lots of drinking.

Accounts of festivities like this make one wonder if our modern Saturnalia aren’t a bit tame in comparison. TV’s Armstrong and Miller caught this rather well in their Wassail Feast sketch: ‘Do you do a low-alcohol wassail cup?’ Apparently old-style wassails still occur in the more un-reconstructed parts of the West Country.

For pity’s sake, nobody tell Health and Safety.

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine