New Year: Tradition of the Wassail

By Robert Chambers

This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added some annotations, links, and images and performed some slight editing.

The merrymakings of New-Year’s Eve and New-Year’s Day are of very ancient date in England. The head of the house assembled his family around a bowl of spiced ale, comically called lamb’s wool (1) from which he drank their health; thou passed it to the rest, that they might drink too. The word that passed amongst them was the ancient Saxon phrase, Wass hael; that is, To your health. Hence this came to be recognised as the Wassail or Wassel Bowl. The poorer class of people carried a bowl adorned with ribbons round the neighbourhood, begging for something wherewith to obtain the means of filling it, that they too might enjoy wassail as well as the rich. In their compotations, they had songs suitable to the occasion, of which a Gloucestershire example has been preserved:

Wassail! wassail! over the town,
Our toast it is white, our ale it is brown: 
Our bowl it is made of the maplin tree, 
We be good fellows all; I drink to thee.

Here’s to [The name of some horse] and to his right ear, (2)
God send our maister a happy New Year; 
A happy New Year as e’er he did see—
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Here’s to [The name of another horse], and to his right eye, (3)
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie 
A good Christmas pie as e’er I did see—
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Here’s to Filpail, and her long tail, (4)
God send our measter us never may fail
Of a cup of good beer; I pray you draw near, 
And then you shall hear our jolly wassail.

Be here any maids, I suppose here be some; 
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone;
Sing hey, oh, maids, come troll back the pin, (5)
And the fairest maid in the house, let us all in.

Come, butler, come bring us a bowl of the best: 
I hope your soul in heaven may rest:
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small, (6)
Then down fall butler, bowl, and all.’

What follows is an example apparently in use amongst children:

Here we come a wassailing,
    Among the leaves so green, 
Here we come a wandering,
    So fair to be seen.

Chorus. Love and joy come to you, 
And to your wassel too,
And God send you a happy New Year,
                                   A New Year,
And God send you a happy New Year! 
Our wassel cup is made of rosemary-tree, (7)
So is your beer of the best barley.

We are not daily beggars,
    That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
    Whom you have seen before.

Call up the butler of this house, 
    Put on his golden ring,
Let him bring us up a glass of beer 
    And the better we shall sing.

We have got a little purse,
    Made of stretching leather skin, 
We want a little of your money 
    To line it well within.

Bring us out a table,
    And spread it with a cloth; 
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
    And some of your Christmas loaf.

God bless the master of this house, 
    Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children,
    That round the table go!

Good master and mistress,
    While you’re sitting by the fire, 
Pray think of us poor children, 
    Who are wandering in the mire.

Chorus. Love and joy come to you, &c.

The custom of wassail at the New Year was kept up in the monasteries as well as in private houses. In front of the abbot, at the upper end of the refectory table, was placed the mighty bowl styled in their language Poculum Caritatis (8), and from it the superior drank to all, and all drank in succession to each other. The corporation feasts of London still preserve a custom that affords a reflex of that of the wassail bowl. A double-handled flagon full of sweetened and spiced wine being handed to the master, or other person presiding, he drinks standing to the general health, as announced by the toastmaster; then passes it to his neighbour on the left hand, who drinks standing to his next neighbour, also standing, and so on it goes, till all have drunk. Such is the well-known ceremony of the Loving Cup.

[Receipt for Making the Wassailbowl – Simmer a small quantity of the following spices in a teacupful of water, viz.:—Cardamums, cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cinnamon, and coriander. When done, put the spice to two, four, or six bottles of port, sherry, or madeira, with one pound and a half of fine loaf sugar (pounded) to four bottles, and set all on the fire in a clean bright saucepan; meanwhile, have yolks of 12 and the whites of 6 eggs well whisked up in it. Then, when the spiced and sugared wine is a little warm, take out one teacupful; and so on for three or four cups; after which, when it boils, add the whole of the remainder, pouring it in gradually, and stirring it briskly all the time, so as to froth it. The moment a fine froth is obtained, toss in 12 fine soft roasted apples, and send it up hot. Spices for each bottle of wine:—10 grains of mace, 46 grains of cloves, 37 grains of cardamums, 28 grains of cinnamon, 12 grains of nutmeg, 48 grains of ginger, 49 grains of coriander seeds.—Mark Lane Express.]

1842, The Illustrated London News: “The Song of the Wassail Bowl.” Although published on Christmas Eve as Father Christmas, note the similarity between “Father Christmas” and both “Father Time” and “The Green Man.” (Image: Wikimedia)

Till very few years ago in Scotland, the custom of the wassail bowl at the passing away of the old year might he said to be still in comparative vigour. On the approach of twelve o’clock, a hot pint was prepared—that is, a kettle or flagon full of warm, spiced, and sweetened ale, with an infusion of spirits. When the clock had struck the knell of the departed year, each member of the family drank of this mixture ‘A good health and a happy New Year and many of them’ to all the rest, with a general hand-shaking, and perhaps a dance round the table, with the addition of a song to the tune of Hey tuttie taitic:

‘Weel may we a’ be,
Ill may we never see,
Here’s to the king
And the gude companie!’ &c.

The elders of the family would then most probably sally out, with the hot kettle, and bearing also a competent provision of buns and short-bread, or bread and cheese, with the design of visiting their neighbours, and interchanging with them the same cordial greetings. If they met by the way another party similarly bent, whom they knew, they would stop and give and take sips from their respective kettles. Reaching the friend’s house, they would enter with vociferous good wishes, and soon send the kettle a-circulating. If they were the first to enter the house since twelve o’clock, they were deemed as the first-foot; and, as such, it was most important, for luck to the family in the coming year, that they should make their entry, not empty-handed, but with their hands full of cakes and bread and cheese; of which, on the other hand, civility demanded that each individual in the house should partake.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 1900, “The Wassail.” Mixed media and collage. Once installed at the Ingham Street Tearooms (1950) and now seen at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. (Image: artuk.org)

To such an extent did this custom prevail in Edinburgh in the recollection of persons still living, that, according to their account, the principal streets were more thronged between twelve and one in the morning than they usually were at midday. Much innocent mirth prevailed, and mutual good feelings were largely promoted. An unlucky circumstance, which took place on the 1st January of 1812, proved the means of nearly extinguishing the custom. A small party of reckless boys formed the design of turning the innocent festivities of firstfootinq to account for purposes of plunder. They Kept their counsel well. No sooner had the people come abroad on the principal thoroughfares of the Old Town, than these youths sallied out in small bands, and commenced the business which they had undertaken. (9)

Their previous agreement was, to look out for the white neckcloths,—such being the best mark by which they could distinguish in the dark individuals likely to carry any property worthy of being taken. A great number of gentlemen were thus spoiled of their watches and other valuables. The least resistance was resented by the most brutal maltreatment. A policeman, and a young man of the rank of a clerk in Leith, died of the injuries they had received. An affair so singular, so uncharacteristic of the people among whom it happened, produced a widespread and lasting feeling of surprise. The outrage was expiated by the execution of three of the youthful rioters on the chief scone of their wickedness; but from that time, it was observed that the old custom of going about with the hot pint—the ancient wassail —fell off.

(10)

In the parish of Berlen, near Snodland, in the county of Kent, are the remains of the old mansion of Groves, originally the property of a family named Hawks. On part of this house being pulled down in the latter part of the eighteenth century, there was found an oak beam supporting the chimney, which presented an antique carving exactly represented in the engraving at the head of this article. The words Wass hell and Drinc hello leave no doubt that the bowl in the centre was a representation of the wassail bowl of the time when the house was built, probably the sixteenth century. The two birds on the bowl are hawks—an allusion to the name of the family which originally possessed the mansion.

The wassail bowle,’ says Warton, ‘is Shakespeare’s Gossip’s Bowl in the Midsummer Night’s Dream. (11) The composition was ale, nutmeg, sugar, toast, and roasted crabs or apples.’ The word is interpreted by Verstegan as wase hale—that is, grow or become well. It came in time to signify festivity in general, and that of rather an intemperate kind. A wassail candle was a large candle used at feasts.

Notes:

This excerpt was adapted from the very excellent Hillman’s Hyperlinked and Searchable Chambers’ Book of Days. (Here)

  1. “Lamb’s wool”: As a drink, also served on Twelfth Night (Epiphany). So called for the whiteness of the roasted apples as they push out of their skins while cooking for the cider drink. Also, and unrelated, one of the best forms of padding for pointe shoes, should the wassail make you feel like (ballet) dancing.
  2. In some versions, “Here’s to our horse”
  3. Or, “Here’s to our mare”
  4. ”Here’s to our cow”
  5. the lock on the door
  6. ”Small ale:” A version of ale also called “table ale”, “table beer”, “small beer” with very low alcohol by volume, generally served to children and servants, or as a substitute for water.
  7. Rosemary historically garnished both the wassail bowl and the English Christmas roast beef and boar’s head. Shakespeare (and the Victorian English) associated it with remembrance, maybe because it was worn and used at both weddings and funerals. For more on Rosemary, see Richard Folkard, Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics:  Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-lore of the Plant Kingdom.
  8. The cup of kindness
  9. The Tron Riot (See Wikipedia and JSTOR: “The Attack of the Half-Formed Persons: The 1811-2 Tron Riot in Edinburgh Revisited” by W.W. Knox)
  10. Omitted paragraph due to colonial and racial biases:
    “A gentleman of Preston has communicated to a popular publication that for many years past he has been in the habit of calling on a friend, an aged lady, at an early hour of New-Year’s Day, being by her own desire, as he is a fair-complexioned person, and therefore assumed to be of good omen for the events of the year. On one occasion, he was prevented from attending to his old friend’s request, and her first caller proved to be a dark-complexioned man; in consequence of which there came that year sickness, trouble, and commercial disaster.”
  11. Act II, Scene I.

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