The word 'wassail' comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘was hael’ which means `good health'. The wassail bowl was a large bowl passed from person to person, containing a traditional drink of punch, which was made up of apples, ale or cider, spices, sugar, eggs, cream and 'lamb's wool' (the white fluffy inside of roasted apples) floating on the top.

On January 17th, which is the old Twelfth Night, people in the southern counties of England "wassail the apple trees'. This custom has pagan or pre-Christian origins and its purpose was to drive away evil spirits from the cider apple orchards to ensure a good crop. When the calendar was changed in 1752 the country folk quite rightly refused to believe that Mother Nature would take any notice of such new-fangled notions, so the custom continued to be celebrated on the old Twelfth Night, which is now January ' 6th.

At Carhampton in Somerset the local people form a circle round the largest apple tree, men fire guns through its branches, throw cider over its trunk and put pieces of toast and cake soaked in cider in the branches to thank the gods.

Then they all sing the Old Wassail Songs and toast the trees. Afterwards, fortified against the cold, the villagers set out into the apple orchards where bonfires are lit. These have the beneficial effect of protecting the trees from frost.

At South Hams in Devon a small boy was lifted into the tree to shout: `Tit, tit, more to eat', after which he was given bread, cheese and cider. In pagan times robins, wrens and blue-tits were sacred birds.

In other districts people bang trays or howl to frighten off evil spirits, or do circle dances round the trees.

From the Illustrated London News, 11 January, 1851…
“On Twelfth Eve, in Devonshire, it is customary for the farmer to leave his warm fireside, accompanied by a band of rustics, with guns, blunderbusses, etc., presenting an appearance which at other times would be somewhat alarming. Thus armed, the band proceed to an adjoining orchard, where is selected one of the most fruitful and aged of the apple trees, grouping round which they stand and offer up their invocations in the following doggerel rhyme:

"Here's to thee,
Old apple tree!
Whence thou mayst bud,
And whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear
Apples enow:

Hats full, Caps full,
Bushels, bushds, sacks full
And my pockets full, too!
Huzzal huzza!"

The cider jug is then passed around, and, with many a hearty shout, the party fire off their guns, charged with powder only, amidst the branches”

Similar ceremonies were carried out in at least eleven English counties (Cornwall, ' Devon, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Kent, Shropshire, Somerset, Surrey, Sussex and Worcestershire), and still are carried out at Trusham (Devon) and Roadwater and Carhampton (Somerset), the last two on Old Twelfth Night (17 January)


Here are some traditional Wassail rhymes from around the Counties followed by a selection of Wassail songs. Finally, there are recipes for traditional Wassail fayre.




From the South Hams of Devon, recorded 1871
Here's to thee. old apple tree.
Whence thou mayst bud
And whence thou mayst blow,
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel-bushel--sacks full.
And my pockets full too! Huzza

From 19th century South Hams
Apple-tree. apple-tree
Bear good fruit.
Or- down with your top
And up with your root.

From 19th century Sussex and Surrey
Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray the God send us a howling good crop.
Every twig apples big.
Every bough. apples now.

From 19th Century Somerset and Oxfordshire
Old apple tree, we wassail thee, and hope that thou wilt bear.
The Lord doth know where we shall be till apples come another year.
To bloom well and to bear well. So merry let us be;
Let every man take off his hat and shout to the old apple tree:
Old apple we wassail thee and hope that thou w ilt bear
Hats full, Caps full, three bushel bags full, and a little heap, under the stair.
Hip, hip hooray!

From 19 century Worcestershire
Budwell, bear well
God send you fare well
Every sprig and every spray
A bushel of apples next New Year Day

From Cornworthy, Devon 1805
Huzza, Huzza, in our good town
The bread shall be white and the liquor be brown
So here my olf fellow I drink to thee
And the health of each other tree
Well may ye blow, well may ye bear
Blossom and fruit both apple and pear
So that every bough and every twig
May bend with a burden both fair and big
May ye bear us and yield us fruit such as stors
That the bags and chambers and house run o’er


Dread of hunger is the source of many folk customs and songs, and the sacrifices, ritual feasting, festivals of fire and light that celebrated the passing of the winter solstice and the advent of the season of seed-sowing and new beginnings, had so firm a grip on the hearts of the people that the Church was impelled to take over the `satanic' celebration-as it did with so many critical moments of the agricultural calendar-and to sanctify the magical period, high season of the supernatural ancien regime by naming December 25th as the birth-day of Jesus; but this transfer of the diabolical to the sacred was never completely effected and roistering carols of wassailing still survive as happy reminders of the luck-perambulations of unchristian ceremony, with such melodies as the one recorded from grand old Phil Tanner before he died in a Gower workhouse in 1947, and with verses like the following:

A wassail, a wassail throughout all this town,
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our wassail is made of good ale and true,
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best we could brew

Fol the dol, fol the doldy dol, fol the doldy dol„ fol the doldy dee,
Fol the dairol, fol the daddy, sing tooral-aye-do!

Our wassail is made with an elderberry bough,
And so my good neighbour we'll drink unto thou.
Besides all on earth, you'll have apples in store,
Pray let us come in for it's cold by the door.

We hope that your apple-trees prosper and bear
So we may have cider when we call next year,
And where you've one barrel I hope you'll have ten
So we can have cider when we call again.

There's master and mistress sit down by the fire,
While we poor wassailers do wait in the mire
So you pretty maid with your silverheaded pin
Please open the door and let us come in.

We know by the moon that we are not too soon
We know by the sky that we are not too high
We know by the stars that we are not too far
And we know by the ground that we are within sound

Here's we jolly wassail boys growin' weary and cold
Drop a small bit of silver into our old bowl
And if we're alive for another New Year
Perhaps we may call and see who do live here.


And it's your Wassail and it's our Wassail
And it's joy be to you and a jolly wassail

Wassail and Wassail all over the town
The cup it is white and our ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the malt of the best barley

Oh Master and Mistress oh are you all within
Pray open the door and let us all come in
Oh Master and Mistress a sitting by the fire
Pray think upon poor travellers a wandering in the mire

Oh where is the maid with the silver headed pin
To open the door and let us all come in
Oh Master and Mistress it is our desire
A good loaf some cheese and a toast by the fire

There was an old man and he had an old cow.
And how to keep her he didn't know how
He put his old cow down in his old barn
And a drop or two of cider won't do us no harm
Harm boys harm and it's harm boys harm
And a drop or two of cider won't do us any harm

The girt dog of Langport he burnt his long tail
And this is the night we go singing wassail
Oh Master and Mistress we must now be gone
So bless all in this house till we do call again


Wassail wassail all over the town
Our bread if is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the green maple tree
In the wassail bowl we'll drink unto thee

Here's a health to the ox and to his right eye
May God send our master a good Christmas pie
A good Christmas pie as e'er I did see
In the wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee

Here's a health to the ox and to his right horn
Pray God send our master a good crop of com
A good crop of com as e’er I did see
!n the wassail bowl we'll drink unto thee

Here's a health to the maid in her lily white smock
Who trips to the door and pulls back the lock
Who trips to the door and pulls back the pin
To let us jolly wassailers walk in

Come Butler come bring us a bowl of your best
And pray that in heaven your soul it may rest
But if that you bring a bowl of the small
May the devil take butler bowl and all


Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen:

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And Cod bless you, and send you
A happy new year

Our wassail cup is made of the rosemary tree
And so is your beer of the best barley:

We are not daily beggars that beg from your door,
But we are neighbours' children that 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 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.

God bless the master of this house likewise the mistress to
And all the little children that round the table go

Good Master and good Mistress while you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children who are wandering in the mire:


Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green
And here we come a wandering so fairly to be seen
Now is winter time and strangers travel far and near
And we wish you send you a happy New Year

We hope that all your barley will prosper fine and grow
So that you'll have plenty and a bit more to bestow
Now is etc.

We hope your wethers they grow fat and likewise all your ewes
And where they had but one lamb we hope they will have two
Now is etc.

Bud and blossom bud and blossom bud and bloom and bear
So we may have plenty and cider all next year
Hatfuls and capfuls and in bushel bags and all
And the cider running out of every gutter hole

Down there in the muddy lane there sits an old red fox
Starving and a shivering and licking his old chops
Now is etc.

Bring us out your table and spread it if you please
And give us hungry wassailers a bit of bread and cheese
Now is etc.

I've a little purse and it's made of leather skin
A little silver sixpence would line it well within
Now is etc.


Now the harvest being over and Christmas drawing in
Leave open your door and let us come in
With our Wassail
Wassail, wassail
And joy come to our jolly wassail

The Master and Mistress sitting down by the fire
While we poor wassail boys do trudge through the mire
With …

The master and mistress sitting down at your ease
Put your hands in your pockets and give what you please
With …

This ancient old house I'll kindly salute
It is our ofd custom you need not dispute
With …

Here's a health to the master and a long time to live
Since you've been so kind and so willing to give
With …

Here's the saddle and bridle hanging here on the shelf
If you want any more you can sing it yourself
With …


Oh a lily white lily, oh a lily white pin
Please to come down and let us come in
Lily white lily oh a lily white smock
Please to come down and pull back the lock

For it's our Wassail and a jolly wassail
Joy come to our jolly wassail
How well may they bloom, how well may they bear
So we may have apples and cider next year

Oh Master and Mistress oh are you within
Please to come down and pull back the pin

There was an old farmer and he had an old cow
But how to milk her he didn't know how
He put his old cow down in his old barn
And a little more liquor won't do us no harm

Harm me boys harm, harm me boys harm
And a little more liquor won't do us no harm

For the ringle and the jingle and the tenor of the song goes
Merrily, merrily, merrily
For the tenor of the song goes

Hat fulls cap fulls, three bushel bags full
And little heaps under the stairs
Hip hip hooray


The word "wassail” comes from the Anglo-Saxon greeting "waes hael" or "be whole" - in other words, healthy - but the art of wassailing goes back to Celtic days. Basically a bonding ritual that involved befurred men drinking themselves into a stupor around a smoky fire, the ancient Christmas tradition continues today. Loving cups are taken in various City livery companies and at Jesus College, Oxford, where a silver bowl capable of holding 10 gallons is passed round.

Traditionally, the drink inside was more like a huge, boozy trifle. In 1823, Hugh Hughes described the Welsh wassail as "cakes and apples baked and set in rows on top of one another, with sugar in between, then warm beer, mixed with spices from India". After the liquid was drunk, the cakes and apples were shared out.

In other accounts, pieces of toast spread with spices were floated in the drink instead of the cakes, supposedly to give it flavour. Whoever got the toast was. the lucky one: that is why we drink a toast today. Country folk would also "wassail the apple tree" for the New Year by hanging the toast from the drink on the branches and making loud noises to frighten off evil spirits.

The wassail recipe here is based on one by Sir Watkin Williams Wynne, written in 1722. This drink is wonderfully Christmassy and aromatic, especially if you use one of the spiced ales sold at this time of year. I used a mixture of Wychwood Brewery's Santa Claus Ale, with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves (£1-89 a bottle), and Badger Brewery's warm, gingery Blandford Fly Ale (£1-75 a bottle, both from Waitrose (0800 188 884 for stockists).

But this wassail recipe is even more delicious if you go further back in time and make it Into a puddingy drink using the spiced cakes below. Pile them in an ovenproof casserole with whole apples. You can also add clove-covered oranges and lemons, which you pre-bake in the oven wrapped in silver foil for half an hour at 350F/180C/Gas mark 4 to get the dove oil flowing. The result makes a wonderful party centrepiece drink or, served with brandy butter, cream or Greek yoghurt, a pudding. Then collapse on the sofa for the afternoon.

Traditional 1722 wassail cup (Serves 12)

4 x t pint/500ml bottles of beer (Christmas ale is best)
1 Ib/450q dark brown raw sugar I nutmeg
;Sprinkle of ginger, preferably freshly grated
4 glasses sweetish sherry 3 slices lemon
3 triangles of toasted bread spread with cinnamon (f required
Lemon quarters to garnish

Pour two bottles of the beer into a casserole dish and warm. Add the sugar stirring over the heat to dissolve Grate the nutmeg into the mixture and add the ginger. Pour h the sherry and the rest of the beer, then the lemon. Adjust the flavour with more sugar if desired Float the toast triangles on top and serve garnished with lemon quarters.

Wassail cakes
(Makes 24 fairy-cake sized buns)
9oz/250q unsalted butter or margarine
9oz/2500 sugar t medium egg
6t! oz/150mi Advocaat
9oz/250q self-raising flour 2 tsp baking powder
2oz/50q mixed dried fruit 2
oz/50q dried peel, or fresh or dried cranberries if you prefer
I oz/25g allspice
half a grated nutmeg
Good dash ginger, preferably freshly grated
Good dash cinnamon 24 paper cake-cases

Preheat the oven to 400f/ZOOC/Gas mark G Line two cake trays with 24 paper cases. Either put all Ingredients into a food processor and whizz - or, using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar together, then add the egg and advocaat, flow and baking powder. Stir in the dried fruit and peel or cranberries, then the spices. Divide into paper cases and cook for about 20 minutes.

To make a real, thick traditional Wassail Cup
4 apples
24 wassail cakes made as above
4oz/100g sugar
Wassail drink made as above Optional clove-stuck orange or lemon

Peel and core the apples, or leave whole. and bake for 20 minutes on 350F/ 180C/Gas mark 4 to soften. In an ovenproof casserole a wassail cup, layer the apples with the wassail cakes (do not be tempted to substitute biscuits they break up dreadfully)

If you like a sweet drink. sprinkle each layer with sugar. Pour the wassail drink mixture over the lot, bake for half an hour at 350F/ 180C, Gas mark 4. Drink the liquid, then eat the apples and cakes, or serve the whole with whipped cream, brandy butter or Greek yoghurt as a dessert