AskDefine | Define wassail

Dictionary Definition

wassail n : a punch made of sweetened ale or wine heated with spices and roasted apples; especially at Christmas


1 celebrate noisily, often indulging in drinking; engage in uproarious festivities; "The members of the wedding party made merry all night"; "Let's whoop it up--the boss is gone!" [syn: revel, racket, make whoopie, make merry, make happy, whoop it up, jollify]
2 propose a toast to; "Let us toast the birthday girl!"; "Let's drink to the New Year" [syn: toast, drink, pledge, salute]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A toast to health, usually at a festival.
  2. The beverage served during a wassail.
  3. Revelry.


  1. To toast, to drink to the health of another.
  2. To drink wassail.

Extensive Definition

distinguish wassailing Wassail (pronounced wossayl or woss’l) is a hot, spiced punch often associated with winter celebrations of northern Europe, usually those connected with holidays such as Christmas, New Year's and Twelfth Night. Particularly popular in Germanic countries, the term itself is a contraction of the Old English toast wæs þu hæl, or "be thou hale!" (i.e., "be in good health"). Alternate expressions predating the term, with approximately the same meaning, include both the Old Norse ves heill and Old English wæs hāl.


While the beverage typically served as "wassail" at modern holiday feasts with a medieval theme most closely resembles mulled cider, historical wassail was completely different, more likely to be mulled beer. Sugar, ale, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon would be placed in a bowl, heated, and topped with slices of toast as sops. Hence the first stanza of the traditional carol the Gloucestershire Wassail dating back to the Middle Ages:
Wassail! wassail! all over the town, Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown; Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree; With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.
At Carhampton, near Minehead, the Apple Wassailing is held on the Old Twelfth Night (17 January). The villagers form a circle around the largest apple tree, hang pieces of toast soaked in cider in the branches for the robins, who represent the 'good spirits' of the tree. A shotgun is fired overhead to scare away evil spirits and the group sings, the following being the last verse:
Old Apple tree, old apple tree; We've come to wassail thee; To bear and to bow apples enow; Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full; Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.


There are three varieties of wassail custom.
  • Wassailing the apple trees and the barns: Celebrants gather as above in apple orchards where they perform ritual acts to ensure that there will be a good apple harvest the following year. The wassail beverage is consumed and bonfires lighted. In the orchards noise is made to chase off evil spirits, guns are fired. Pieces of toast soaked in wassail are placed in the branches of the trees. Orchard visiting wassails are most prevalent in the West Country the most famous of these being held in Carhampton (Somerset) and Whimple (Devon).
  • Wassail door to door: This is the most well known. Groups of people either bearing wassail or begging for it, sometimes dressed in costume, go from house to house singing and reveling. This is believed to be a custom of re-distribution helping the poor without placing them in the category of as a version of the song notes: "daily beggars". It is also a way of preserving a perishable crop - apples - by turning it into something that can be preserved and takes up less weight and volume: cider, traditionally a central ingredient for wassail.
  • Wassailing in the hall: Generally tied to other customs of Epiphany such as those relating to the king and queen of the bean. Wassail is consumed inside in a hall, via a loving cup decorated with ribbons.
At great fests they would use wassail to toast to someone's good health.


Music and song is a very important part of the customs of Wassailing. Music and singing accompany the wassailers from door to door, in the orchards, and in the hall.
Here is what is believed to be the most ancient Wassail song.
Sixteenth Century Wassail-
About 1536:
Wassail, wassail, sing we In worship of Christ’s nativity.
Now joy be to the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, That one God is in Trinity, Father of heaven, of mightes most.
And joy to the Virgin pure That ever kept her undefiled Grounded in grace, in heart full sure, And bare a child as maiden mild.
Bethlehem and the star so shen, That shone three kinges for to guide, Bear witness of this maiden clean; The kinges three offered that tide.
And shepherds heard, as written is, The joyful song that there was sung: Gloria in excelsis! With angel’s voice it was out rung.
Now joy be to the blessedful child, And joy be to his mother dear; Joy we all of that maiden mild, And joy have they that make good cheer.
Wassail, wassail, wassail, sing we In worship of Christ’s nativity.
More recent versions of Gower Wassail have been recorded by Folk-Rock group Steeleye Span and traditional artist Shirley Collins.

Other uses and similarities

  • Wassail is very similar to a Roman winter beverage called calda which, according to the recipes of Apicius, consisted of wine cut with water, then heated, sweetened with honey, and flavored with aromatic spices. (Many Christmas traditions actually derive from those of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, so a connection between the two is possible.)
  • Today, many microbreweries produce a beverage very similar to wassail – spiced beer – during the winter months.
  • A Wassail is a traditional ceremony carried out to ensure a good crop of cider apples for the coming harvest. See wassailing.
  • Wassail or wæs þu hæl is a greeting often used by Neopagans to avoid saying anything Christian. It can be used as a form of farewell and greeting. It can be used at any time of the year or day and is not required that it is related to toasting. The belief that it is only done in respect to apples comes from Fraser's The Golden Bough in which the custom is mentioned. As this practice has been revived -- ironically -- by churches, Mummers, and Morris troupes, many non-pagans have come across the term.
  • In the modern day, Wassail is most commonly recognized as an obscure reference in various traditional Christmas carols: "Wassail, wassail all over the town," for example, or "Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green". Wassail-themed songs were once sung by winter carollers who went from house to house, singing to the residents in exchange for small gifts of money, food and drink (often wassail).
  • In the Southern US, Russian Tea is a favorite winter holiday hot beverage, often considered wassail. Made by brewing tea, sweetening the tea, then adding equal parts orange and pineapple juices, lemon juice, cinnamon, and whole cloves. As the concoction simmers, the clove permeates the flavor. An instant version, a popular hostess gift, is made with instant tea and Tang (an orange-flavored drink mix), but is hardly comparable to the "original." There is no apparent connection of this recipe to Russia.

References in Popular Media


Bladey, Conrad, Jay,(2--2) "Do the Wassail", Hutman Productions, Linthicum,ISBN 0970238673. Gayre, G.R. (1948). Wassail! In Mazers of Mead. Pub. Phillimore & Co.Ltd. London.


Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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