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What is Wassail and what does it mean?

Wassail, Christmas Carols and New Year

Throughout Christmas carols and literature there are references to people going wassailing, or drinking wassail but not everybody knows what it is or where it comes from.

The dictionary entry reads Wassail 'A riotous festivity characterised by much drinking’. That certainly got my attention.

The word “Wassail (pronounced woss ail) comes from the Anglo Saxon greeting waes hael which translates as “be well or be whole. This expression has been used as a greeting over the years, to people out in groups visiting or singing at households where they are offered a mug of warm spiced cider or ale on a cold winter’s night over the Christmas period.

Although Christmas carols are now thought to be the music of Christmas it was originally the wassail songs that were celebrated in the later Christmas carols.

christmas carols   

The Christmas Recipe of celebrations actually dates back to pre Christianity fertility rites

The Wassail tradition actually dates back to pre Christianity and was a fertility rite to give thanks to apple trees and ensure their growth and fruit for the coming year.

In the pre Christian calendar Yule – the mid winter festival was celebrated at the solstice on the 21st December. Wassail was the first fertility ritual of the New Year and celebrated in January to ensure a good harvest of the coming year. This is close the festival of Christmas carols.

Traditional wassailing still survives in many places in Northern Europe with many variations.

In Rumania they celebrate with pastries and in Normandy virgins light bonfires in the orchards.

In one Wassail held annually in Devon in the UK the villagers gather together in fancy dress, to walk round the orchards at twilight to bless the trees, drink wassail punch, and sing traditional wassailing songs.

In some places the festivities include banging dustbin lids, shooting guns at the trees, pouring cider on the roots or threatening the oldest tree with an axe. The drinking of a vast amount of Wassail is consistent with all these different forms of celebration although there are many different recipes and regional variations.

The old festival of Wassail takes place on the 5th January – the old Christmas Eve or on “Old Twelvey” which was 12th night in the pre Georgian calendar.

hear an example song of wassail (opens in a new window).


A yuletide traditional Wassail song, which dates from the 17th century.

  Christmas carols come from these verses 

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.


 A traditional British Wassail was featured on the BBC tv Christmas programme Edwardian Farm.

An Orchard was to be wassailed to remove the evil from it so it would bear more fruit the next year.

The belief runs something like, "If you sing to your tree or flock you will encourage its growth"!

First break a bread and dip it in the Cider.

Put the bread in the best tree and as the birds eat the bread they will begin to sing.

Next you chant the following:

Good apple tree we wassail thee,
that thou may bud,
and that thou may blow,
and that thou may bear apples a new,
hats full,
caps full,
three bushel barrels full,

christmas edition

All members of the wassail group chant "wassail, drink hail" and drink from the cup of cider.

This causes the evil to be scared away from the orchard for the following year.

Wassail cider punch recipe  The history of Champagne  Watch How to dig for victory a WW2 Ministry film  What is wassail