What Is Wassailing?

If these carolers come a wassailing, you better have some booze for them. (Photo: Vicki L Miller/Shutterstock)

You may be familiar with the first verse and the chorus of the Christmas carol "Here We Come A Wassailing."

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

It sounds so friendly, doesn't it? But there are seven other verses to the carol, and they make it clear what's really going when a group comes a-wassailing. They are begging for — or sometimes demanding — booze, food and money.

What is wassail?

A cup of modern day wassail. (Photo: Cheryl E Davis/Shutterstock)

Wassail is both a thing and something you do. It's mulled cider, ale or wine. It was a traditional drink for the Anglo-Saxons on the Twelfth Night of Christmas — Dec. 5 — as well as other times during the holiday season.

As a verb, wassail has a few definitions because it seems that "to wassail" or "wassailing" as it's also known, evolved over time.

It always involves booze

"Waes hael" meant "be well" for the Anglo-Saxons. Tradition has it that the lord of the manner would bring together his subjects and toast waes hael, and they would reply drink hael, which meant "drink well." This is the story Historic UK tells. The wassail would be in one large bowl and passed around to all of the guests.

This celebration may have happened at two different times. The first was during a ritual meant to bless the fruit trees in the countryside. The other happened in towns, where people would take their wassail bowl and go from home to home, singing songs and wishing others well — something akin to modern-day caroling.

Wassailing, along with other Christmas traditions that the Puritans considered pagan, got Christmas banned in 1659, according to The New England Historical Society. (It wasn't until after the 1800s that New England Protestants would celebrate Dec. 25 as a Christian holiday.)

In colonial New England at Christmastime, apparently it was customary for societal roles to be reversed: The poor would rule over the wealthy. During this time, some of the poor went wassailing — barging into the homes of the wealthy, singing songs, putting on skits. They demanded not just something to eat and drink (they didn't bring their own bowl of wassail with them), but also money.

Other verses of the carol allude to these demands.

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

We have got a little purse
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.

(This makes the lines "Now bring us some figgy pudding/we won't go until we get some" in "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" make more sense, doesn't it?)

Modern wassailing

hot chocolate, cookies
Compared to those who opened their doors to wassailers in centuries past, those who open their doors to carolers get off easy when all they need to offer is cookies or hot chocolate. (Photo: amberto4ka/Shutterstock)

In modern times wassailing has morphed into Christmas caroling, with groups of people going door to door singing Christmas songs.

Those who open their doors to carolers often offer the singers holiday cookies or something warm to drink such as hot chocolate. It seems we get off pretty easy these days when someone sings "Here We Come A Wassailing" at our front doors, don't we?