wassail, n. 1. A salutation used when presenting a cup of wine to a guest, or drinking the health of a person, the reply being drink-hail n. 2. The liquor in which healths were drunk; esp. the spiced ale used in Twelfth Night and Christmas Eve celebrations. 3. A custom formerly observed on Twelfth Night and New Year's Eve of drinking healths from the wassail-bowl. Also [?] the person invited to drink from the wassail-bowl. 4. A carousal; riotous festivity, revelling. 5. A carol or song sung by wassailers; a wassailing or health-drinking song. -- Oxford English Dictionary
Most of us, if we have encountered the word wassail at all, have met it as we sing the carol, "Here We Come A-Wassailing." The origins that led to that Yuletide song, I am told, are very, very old indeed -- it appears in Beowulf ("in warriors' wassail and words of power") so there's that. The modern word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon toast "Wæs þu hæl," meaning "be thou hale" — or we might say "be in good health." The traditional response to this toast would be "Drinc hæl." The whole concept of wassailing clearly predates the Norman conquest of 1066. The roots of the word are found in Old Norse (ves heil) and Old English (was hál) meaning "be of good cheer." In its original meaning, the phrase did not necessarily limit itself to Christmastide.
Eventually, the wassail came to be understood as a ritual exchange between the lord of a manor and his tenants or vassals, at the turning of the year. The would-be recipients initiated this exchange, singing to make sure that everyone understood that "we are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door, / but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before." The lord of the manor responded by offering the wassailers food and drink. In return he received their blessing: "Love and joy come to you, / And to you your wassail, too, / And God bless you and send you / A happy new year!" The song "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is clearly a wassailing song as well, as we see when we look more closely at the verses that demand figgy pudding: "We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here!"
Are you looking to serve some good old wassail to your caroling friends and neighbors? If so, you can serve up a concoction of mulled cider, perhaps simmered along with a fruity red wine. If you throw some cloves and a cinnamon stick or two into your pot, you will be close to the mead- or wine-based drink of the medieval period -- although that beverage was a frothy concoction that also included eggs and beer, with crab-apples floating on top.
And here's an old-fashioned Christmas-y Advent book for you to read while you drink your wassail! The poet Dylan Thomas originally published this prose story in 1950, but his audio recording in 1952 has become a classic -- so classic that some people (by which I mean the book lovers at the Library of Congress) declare that this recording "launched the audiobook industry in the United States."
There are several illustrated versions of A Child's Christmas in Wales; I am sad to tell you that all of of them appear to be out of print. But that won't stop you, my book-loving friends! You will be able to find this book through a used book store, or at the library, or you might even find a recording of Dylan Thomas himself reading it to you -- which is actually the best way to encounter this lovely, nostalgic look back at Thomas's childhood memories of Christmas. Here's a sample of his poetry-drunk prose: