Kenny Klein: Tales Of The Rambling Wren.
Follow Kenny from the levees of New Orleans to the whirling chaos that is the Pagan festival circuit and beyond. Musings, rants, and just plain Pagan talk.
"Oh wassail oh wassail from all over town
Our ale it is white and our cider is brown
Our wassail is made from the good ale and cane
Some nutmeg and ginger the best we could bring!"
(Traditional English wassail carol)
Yule is upon us, and a merry month it is! It is time for the rebirth of the sun, the fires of the yule log, and for wassail!
You have heard the term before, wassail, but perhaps you don't know the drink and the custom. Shrouded in time and in mispronunciation, I remember learning a song in my childhood that was "Here We Come A-Wassailing" but learning it as "Here We Come A-Whistling." This is what happens in the folk process when songs are passed but their meanings and significance are lost.
Wassail is a Saxon word meaning "good health." The custom of wassailing comes to us from the Saxons, Danish vikings who settled England early in the first millennium (roughly around the 5th and 6th centuries) after whom England was named (from Land of The Anglo-Saxons, or Angle-land: in French, Angleterre). It was most likely an ancient Norse custom when it arrived in its new home.
The traditional actions of wassailing have the characteristics of a classic northern European Pagan tradition: a group embodying a deity or magical being come door to door (in this case, the magical properties of the wassail, and as young men, the deity of the sun); a song is sung, which has the magic of being ancient, being sung or rhymed (as in "to bind ye spell every time/let ye spell be spake in rhyme), and tying the participants to everyone who has ever sung the song, and to the first time the song was ever sung); a blessing is given and received (good health for coins); and as always happens in Saxon customs, alcohol is involved. This would characterize a multitude of English and Welsh customs like the wren custom (which I spoke of here), or the Mari Llwyd and the Hobby Horse (see Lauren DeVoe's post here). Wassailing fits squarely into these door-to-door observances, and is the origin of caroling. In this case a song is sung, a drink (called wassail) is brought to each home, and the residents give a coin for the blessing of drinking some wassail, which, as the name implies, will bring the household good health for the coming year. This verse of the song describes the young men, holding their bowl of wassail, standing before a home:
There's a master and a mistress sitting down by the fire
While we poor wassail boys stand here in the mire
Oh you pretty maid with your silver-headed pin
Pray open the door and let us come in
With our wassail
While you will find many recipes for wassail online, here are the classic (and not so complex it requires a recipe) makings of wassail:
Mull (heat) cider in a large pot
When the cider is warm, add English ale (I recommend Sam Smith's Nut Brown Ale)
Add cloved apples, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg to taste
Some traditional recipes call for adding bits of toast
You can find more recipes in Lauren DeVoe's post here.
While the custom is not attached to a specific God or deity, the drink is made from all of the products of the harvest: grains, plants, fruits, and spices, so it can be said to honor the God of the sun and the Goddess of the fields and orchards. It also imbues all of the blessings of a good harvest upon all who drink it. This verse of the song expresses that:
How well the May bloom, how well the May bear
So that we may have apples and cider next year
Hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls
Little heaps under the stairs!
Just like the songs involved in most door-to-door traditions, each English town and village has its own version of the wassail song, though the lyrics are essentially the same in each town. There are many recordings, ranging from field recordings of folk renditions to folk-rock recordings to versions written out for choral singing. Several renditions are posted throughout this missive. I recommend versions by the Watersons, Steeleye Span, and Fairport Convention (all posted here).
In our Yule ritual each year, we make a batch of wassail, and bless the drink by singing several verses of the song (choose from among the many versions posted here). Then we drink the wassail, making a "bragi toast," the origin of the tradition of New Year's resolutions. At each drink, we vow something we will do in the coming year. Be warned: wassail is pretty potent stuff. By the time you get around the group a few times, you will be vowing to conquer Europe.
Please login first in order for you to submit comments