In the 17th Century, Christmas Day was more than just a religious date – it marked the beginning of the traditional twelve days of celebrating, feasting, and drinking but was also a flashpoint in the political and cultural turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Over the twelve days, we’re going to be exploring some of the Christmas customs and history from the 1640s and 1650s…
With a frothy bowl of mulled ale, the wassailers go from door-to-door bidding the householders take a cup and help themselves – in return for a little coin and a “Merry Christmas!” … but what are the 17th Century roots of this seemingly ancient festive custom?
Of all the ‘traditional’ customs that have enjoyed a revival in recent decades, the custom of ‘wassailing’ is probably the most immediately attractive, summing up the season’s . But although some will claim a lineage dating back into pre-Christian history, the evidence suggests ‘wassail’ evolved from a general greeting amongst Danish-speaking inhabitants of England into a word meaning a drinking toast, a party, a drink, or even a song sung while enjoying said drink.
Regardless of its origins, there are two forms of wassailing – the house visit and the agricultural custom, both of which appear to have their roots in Tudor and Stuart England.
The earliest reference to wassailers knocking on doors comes from the late 1400s but by about 1600 it had become the custom for commoners to take a ‘wassail bowl’ about the streets, probably from house to house, and offer people a drink, often expecting money in return. The bowl would usually be filled with ‘Lamb’s Wool’, a tasty mulled ale drink with roasted apples, toast, nutmeg, and sugar.
However, much like carollers or trick-or-treaters today, not everyone appreciated the arrival of wassailers at their threshold. Despite his interest in ancient law, in 1689 jurist John Selden (1584–1654) complained ‘The Pope in sending rollicks to princes, does as wenches do by their vassals at New-years-tide, they present you with a cup, and you must drink of a slab stuff; but the meaning is you must give them money, ten times more than it is worth‘. The bowl would supposedly be accompanied on its round by a song, first recorded in 1550 (lending weight to the suggestion this was an early Tudor custom):
Wassail, wassail, out of the milk pail,
Wassail, wassail, as white as my nail,
Wassail, wassail, in snow, frost, hail,
Wassail, wassail, the much doth avail,
Wassail, wassail, that never will fail.
The second form of wassailing seems to originate in the late 16th Century – Ronald Hutton’s Rise and Fall of Merrie England suggests a first recorded instance in Fordwich, Kent, in 1585 before it reappears in Devon in the 1630s, then again in the diary of a Sussex Parson in 1670. It involved a visit to an orchard – though the exact date varies depending on location, from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night – by a wassailing party going to cheer loudly, sing songs under the trees, hit them with sticks or pans, fire muskets, pour cider on their roots, and even push cider-soaked pieces of toast into the branches – the aim being to ‘wake’ the tree from its winter slumber and encourage it to produce a good crop the following year. It was clearly well established in the 17th Century as, in 1648, poet Robert Herrick (1591–1674) mentioned the tradition in his Hesperides collection:
Wassaile the trees, that they may bear
You many a plum, and many a peare:
For more or lesses fruits they will bring
As you doe give them wassailing.
Both forms of wassailing lasted well into the 19th and early 20th Centuries, particularly in apple-growing communities in the south-west of England. Wassailing ceremonies are becoming popular again as community gatherings in the 21st Century, with events being staged in places such as Wolvercote and Beckley & Stowood in Oxfordshire.
So maybe spread some festive cheer this year and indulge in a little 17th Century wassailing with the neighbours … or even the apple tree at the bottom of the garden?