Now as little fond of Christmas as William Bradford seems to be, New Years,
a more secular holiday, would not have delighted him more. Was he just an
old grump? What’s so wrong with celebrating a holiday? Well, first, if you
think of a holiday as a holy day, then an excess of drunken revels probably
isn’t the best observance. And as for New Years, the question is just when
is the year new – the Old Style in England preferred a 25 of March start to
the year, but that’s another whole story. But if you’re celebrating between
Christmas and Twelfth Night’s you’re looking at the wassail, which is the
salute, the drink, the drinking and the song in the 17th century. One little
word supplies a lot of meaning.
‘Wassail’ comes from the Old English (old as in 10th century – that’s right,
the 1100’s – real old. In the 1600’s they were speaking Modern English, just
like us, just not exactly like us) wes hál which is literaly ‘be in good
health’ or ‘be fortunate’. Nothing wrong with offering someone good health
or good fortune. Usually you would do this salute over a glass of wine. How
is this different from a modern day toast,’To the New Year Chingching’?
There’s the part where you would drain your cup- every time – and these
weren’t dainty six ounce wine glasses . They were drinking from cups that
might hold between a pint and a quart. That’s a lot of wine. Is it any
surprise the phrase “in his cups” meaning drunk is also often in Wassail
Wassail the drink is either spiced ale (ale being beer without hops in it,
not like the sort of ale you can but now) or honeyed wine or mead with herbs
in it. Since the museum is never open in the Christmas/New Years/ Twelfth
Night season I don’t have these recipes at hand, but I also don’t have a
sense that there were a lot of recipes for this sort of thing, because
people knew what to do, and just did it. Not helpful for us, but just think
of the things you do each day, each year that you do in particular way, that
’s not the same as your neighbor or your aunt or your brother. Part of the
mystery of Foodways.
Wassail the revels…. if you start with excess of drink and go from there…
Back in the ‘80’s we had a dialect training tape that included a story of
Old Jude, who went out a-wassailin’, but drank so much here never knew where
he was until he was half way home again. Please, don’t wassail and drive.
Wassail the song, being usually sung by those who had first had wassail the
drink, has been compared to a cat cry, ‘Nuff said.
I must go and choose a cake for Twelfth Night and leave you with these words
from Shakespeare on wassail: ‘That Memorie..shall be a Fume.‘
Kathleen M. Wall
Colonial Foodways Manager