Here’s to you as we celebrate with a toast to “Good Health” in the New Year and a lively rendition of the traditional Gloucestershire Wassail. The word ‘wassail’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon toast, “be thou healthy (hale)”, to which the correct response was a hearty “drink healthy”. Shakespeare makes references to it in several of his plays like Antony and Cleopatra where Octavius Caesar, speaking to Antony disapprovingly says, “Antony, Leave thy lascivious wassails.”
Wassailing originally involved going door to door singing carols, however it could just as easily become less cheery when the carollers requested alms and drink or, after having received their drink, then became rowdy. This is the meaning of wassail most often found in Shakespeare, as in Hamlet’s speech:
“The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.”
It is also with drink and “wassail” that Lady Macbeth plans to confuse the guards around King Duncan, thus allowing her husband a chance to kill the king. Other wassail references include Falstaff, who compares his portly stature to that of a “wassail candle,” since he, like candles, is made of “tallow”. In Love’s Labour’s Lost Berowne, last seen talking about Christmas, also describes Boyet as “wit’s peddler, and retails his wares / At wakes, and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs”.
While the drink known as “wassail” at modern holiday feasts is often made of mulled cider, historical wassail was completely different, more likely to be mulled beer. Sugar, ale, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon would be placed in a bowl, heated, and topped with slices of toast as sops, hence the origin of our expression “to propose a toast.” By the way, those who ended up with toast in their cup were considered the lucky ones! Here’s the first stanza of the traditional carol, which dates 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.
And so to all of you as we begin 2012, “Be thou healthy, wealthy, happy and wise, with your cup overflowing with goodness and pies.”