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Wassail (Old English wæs hæl, literally 'be you healthy') refers both to the salute 'Waes Hail' and to the drink of wassail, a hot mulled cider traditionally drunk as an integral part of wassailing, an ancient southern English drinking ritual intended to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year.
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In the cider-producing counties in the South West of England (primarily Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) or South East England (Kent, Sussex, Essex and Suffolk) wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of trees (on the twelft night) in the hopes that they might better thrive. The purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn. The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements. A wassail King and Queen lead the song and/or a processional tune to be played/sung from one orchard to the next; the wassail Queen is then lifted into the boughs of the tree where she places toast soaked in wassail from the clayen cup as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). In some counties the youngest boy or "Tom Tit" will stand in for the Queen and hang the cider soaked toast in the tree. Then an incantation is usually recited.
A folktale from Somerset reflecting this custom tells of the "Apple Tree Man", the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and in whom the fertility of the orchard is said to reside. In the tale a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the Apple Tree Man who reveals to him the location of buried treasure.
Wassail the beverage is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Yuletide. Historically, the drink was a mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toast. Modern recipes begin with a base of wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale, sometimes with brandy or sherry added. Apples or oranges are often added to the mix. While the beverage typically served as "wassail" at modern holiday feasts with a medieval theme most closely resembles mulled cider, historical wassail drinks were completely different, more likely to be mulled beer or mead. 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 Orchard Wassailing is held on the Old Twelfth Night (6 January) as a ritual to ask God for a good apple harvest. 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.
Next crowne the bowle full of
With gentle Lambs wooll,
Adde sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too,
And thus ye must doe
To make the Wassaile a swinger.
Irish antiquarian Charles Vallancey proposed that the name "lambswool" was a corruption of the name of a pagan Irish festival, "Lamas Ubhal", during which a similar drink was had. Alternatively, the name may derive from the drink's appearance to the wool of lambs. Ale is occasionally replaced by Ginger ale for children, especially around Halloween.
This drink would be roughly equivalent to beer or wine in many contemporary western cultures. People drank it at social gatherings. "Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best/... please God send our master a good cask of ale..." sung throughout the towns of the Germanic nations, sending good luck to one's master in the new year.
The British rock band Blur released a cover of the song, with each member taking a verse. The release was limited to 500 7-inch pressings, which were given out at a concert in 1992. The version of 'The Wassailing Song' performed by Blur was later adapted in a recording by The Grizzly Folk, who have stated that the arrangement bears a close resemblance to the 'Gloucestershire Wassail'.
The alternative rock band Half Man Half Biscuit from Tranmere, England included a song named 'Uffington Wassail' on their 2000 album 'Trouble over Bridgwater'. With its references to the Israeli transsexual Eurovision contestant Dana International, the Sealed Knot English Civil War re-enactment society, and also to the skier Vreni Schneider, the meaning of the songs title in this context is a little obscure.
In 2013 Folk Rock musician Wojtek Godzisz (formerly of the band Symposium created an arrangement of the traditional Gloucestershire Wassail words with original music for the Pentacle Drummers first Annual Wassail festival (2013), simply called 'Wassail'. The song will be included on his next album.
For the Pentacle Drummers second Wassail festival(2014) the Pagan rock band Roxircle also wrote a Wassail song especially for the event called 'Wassail(Give Thanks To The Earth)'. The Pentacle Drummers encourage their headline acts to write a song centered around wassailing, a way to keep the tradition alive.
It was mentioned in the cult classic television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 in one of their sketches in between their heckling of awful films. Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo (both robots) ask Mike Nelson (their unofficial human captain) to provide some, and when asked to further explain what exactly wassail was, they admitted to having no idea, though they offer a guess that it might be an 'anti-inflammatory'. Upon actually getting some, they describe it as 'skunky', discovering it to be a 500-year-old batch.
In 2004, the Alternative Christmas message was presented by The Simpsons who close out with a cup of "traditional British wassail". When the director cuts, they spit it out in disgust, with Bart remarking that it tasted "like hurl".
Wassail was featured on the BBC Two special Oz and Hugh Drink to Christmas, which aired on Sunday, 20 December 2009. Oz Clarke and Hugh Dennis sampled the drink and the wassailing party in Southwest England as part of their challenge to find Britain's best Christmas drinks.