Wassail was a very specific Christmas custom in medieval England, which involved the consumption of copious amounts of hot ale. It was a way of passing on good wishes and has only really ceased to have significance over the last century and a quarter or so. The word is derived from the Old Norse ves heill and Old English wes hal, meaning “be of good health” or “be of good fortune.” The use of the wassail as a drinking toast seems to have arisen among the Danish-speaking inhabitants of England, and then spread throughout the whole land. When the Normans conquered England, they erroneously assumed that the wassail was a native English phenomenon.

A little after the Conquest, Geoffrey of Monmouth gave an early account of the practice in his story of Rowena, the daughter of Hengist, which he wrote around 1140 ad. He relates that it had been the custom in early Britain for one who drinks to another to say, “wacht heil!” and for he who pledges in return to answer, “drink heil!” Indeed, legend has it that the night before the Battle of Hastings, the English army had spent their hours revelling amid cries of wessel and drinche-heil! Originally a general toast, the wassail became to be known as principally a Twelfth Night ceremony in which a bowl of hot, spiced ale was offered to participants. Henry VII’s Household Ordinances of December 31, 1494 record procedure and protocol for the wassail. The most complete 17th-century accounts of the custom are to be found in the verses of Robert Herrick (1591–1674), who “quaffed the mighty bowl” with Ben Jonson.

As with most ceremonies, a specialized paraphernalia evolved, and the large (originally wooden) wassail-bowl was a central feature. Elaborate cups were also employed, and most large monasteries and grand houses possessed such items. For many years, the main ingredients of the wassail-bowl were hot strong ale, sugar, spices, and roasted apples; a drink called “lambswool” (similar to a posset, consisting of sugared hot milk curdled by spiced ale). A verse from Herrick’s poem Twelfth Night is most evocative:

Next crown the bowle full

With gentle lamb’s-wooll;

Add sugar, nutmeg and ginger,

With store of ale, too;

And thus ye must doe

To make the wassaile a swinger.

“Drinking the wassail,” also sometimes termed “wassailing,” has long had an association with song, particularly Christmas carols. An interesting variant was called the “Orchard-visiting wassail,” a ceremony which involved drinking to the health of trees in cider-apple orchards.