Here We Come A-Wassailing; The Roots of a Christmas Tradition

It’s not Christmas without Christmas carols.  Many of our most traditional carols are filled with lyrics and lines that leave the modern caroler bewildered.  One of my favorite holiday tunes is “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” also commonly known as “Here We Come A-Caroling.”  Just what is wassailing?  Is it just an archaic word for Christmas caroling?  Actually no, it isn’t.  While the two terms have become generally accepted as interchangeable, caroling is just one aspect of a much deeper and more profound tradition of wassailing.

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Wassail is also a common name for a variety of mulled or spiced beverages such as apple cider, served hot and traditional during the winter months, especially at Christmastime.  In medieval England wassail was a common fermented drink, a type of ale, or mead, served with bread or toast and consumed ceremonially and socially like beer or wine in modern society.  Typical ingredients of wassail included sweetened apple cider, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger.  Modern popular varieties may use a fruit juice, ale, or wine as a base, sometimes spiked with liquor.  Originating in England, wassail was traditionally used as a beverage for making important ceremonial toasts, a ritual closely related to the sumble.  The word itself is derived from the Middle English term waes hael, which means “good health to you.”  Similarly it corresponds to the Old English “wes hal,” and the Old Norse “ves heill.”

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In ancient Europe, wassailing was an important element in the highly tree oriented Anglo-Saxon religious complex.  The Yuletide rite consisted of a parade of revelers singing hymns and playing their drums and other musical instruments, roving between the orchards, leaving offerings and pouring libations.  The ceremony was intended to awaken the apple trees and chase away malevolent spirits in order that the trees should be healthy and produce an abundant crop the following year.  Hot mulled cider, prepared from the recent harvest was the traditional and symbolic drink consumed and offered at these ceremonies.

During the medieval period, under feudalism the wassail developed into a midwinter ritual in which the wealthy Lord would distribute goods from his storehouses to the peasants who worked his lands.  In exchange for gifts of his best foods, beers, ales, and wines, the Lord could be assured his people’s allegiance and fealty for the next year.  During the late sixteenth century, bands of young men would travel from orchard to orchard on Twelfth Night, performing the wassailing rite.  They would take their wassail bowl with them and leave offerings of bread or toast on the roots or branches of trees.  Libations of cider were poured on the roots in order that the trees would produce an abundant harvest the following year.  Wassailing cups and bowls were important communal ceremonial items used within all levels or society.  Wassail vessels came in many varieties from the large and intricately decorated silver goblet used by the Worshipful Company of Grocers guild, to the simple white maple bowls used by commoners.

santa-Wassail

During the later historical era wassailing became associated with roving bands of the poor who would descend upon their wealthy neighbors’ homes at Christmastime.  Singing and dancing, they wassailers would demand entrance into the house, and shares of the residents’ best liquors and deserts.  This rite is forever enshrined in the words to the popular carol We Wish You a Merry Christmas; “Now give us some figgy pudding,” and “we won’t go until we get some!”  The estate’s owner was fully expected to play along and contribute to the “good cheer.”  If he didn’t, he could expect his reputation to plummet and possibly his property vandalized.  The old Yuletide holiday was celebrated in a fashion more similar to Halloween and trick-or-treat than to our modern Christmas. This drunken disorderliness is one of the reasons used to outlaw Christmas celebrations by the newly empowered puritans in the Commonwealth of England during the mid seventeenth century.  Over the past few centuries, the roving gangs of wassailers have become tamed into the serene image of the Christmas caroler singing from door to door in the white winter weather, sipping on hot apple-cider.  The hooligan shaking down the neighborhood for treats has been reserved for Halloween.

Wassailing in the old way however, is still practiced especially in the cider-producing western counties of England.   In Carhamptona and Whimple, Wassails are held on Twelfth Night, January 17th*, as a means of asking God to bless the community with a healthy orchard and a plentiful apple harvest.  A Wassail king and, queen are selected to lead a procession from orchard to orchard as the participants sing and play music.  During this rite, the wassailers drink large droughts of cider until they are quite full of good cheer. Upon entering an orchard the participants form a circle around the largest apple tree.  The Wassail queen is lifted into the branches where she leaves a piece of toast dipped in wassail as an offering to the “tree faeries,” or the “good spirits,” commonly represented by the local robins.  A blessing to the tree is recited and near the conclusion of the ceremony a man fires a shotgun in the air to frighten away the evil spirits.  Then the revelers begin beating drums, some using pots and pans while singing a traditional invocation for a rich harvest before proceeding to the next orchard.  A popular wassailing song from nineteenth century Somerset County, England went as follows;

 

“Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,

Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,

Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,

Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah, Holler biys, holler hurrah.”[5]

 

Another old lyric from England says;

 

“Wassaile the trees, that they may beare

You many a Plum and many a Peare,

For more or lesse fruits they will bring,

As you do give them Wassailing.”

 

Our modern tradition of wassailing has taken an intriguing path on its way to us.   Now we can make a little more sense out of the opening lines of that old favorite at Christmastime.  “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,” is reminiscent of the old ritual of visiting the orchards, singing to the health of the apple trees to ensure the following year’s harvest.

“Love and Joy come to you,

and to you your wassail too,

And God bless you and send you a happy new year.”

* The date of Twelfth Night is in dispute in certain parts of Britain.  The date on the Gregorian calendar corresponds to January 6th, or the eve of January 5th.  The pre-Gregorian, Julian date which is followed by the old traditionalists falls on January 17th.

Eight Christmas Characters Most Americans Don’t Know

To most Americans Santa Claus is the face of the Christmas season popularized most heavily by the poem T’was the Night before Christmas which essentially codified the Santa tradition in the United States.  Based heavily off of the earlier European models like Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, Old Man Winter, and of course St. Nicolas, the poem took these old world variations and developed the jolly old elf we know and love today, complete with his sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.  Rudolf would have to wait until much later to be introduced into the mythology.  But throughout Europe there is a broad range of Christmas characters less familiar to Americans, who reveal the richness of this holiday tradition.  Here are eight Christmas characters most Americans don’t know.

 

1) Yule Lads

In Iceland, 13 mischievous Yule Lads start coming to town one a day beginning thirteen days before Christmas, each one staying for two weeks.  They appear to be quite troublesome spirits, partaking in all sorts of impish behavior, robbing, pulling pranks on, and generally harassing the townspeople.  Each of the thirteen Yule Lads or Yulemen have rather unique names that express the character of their misdeeds such as Meat-Hook, Window-Peeper, and Sausage-Swiper.

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2) Christkind

Christkind is the Christ child, or the baby Jesus.  While Christmas is commonly celebrated as the birth of Christ, He is typically not thought of as the Christmas gift-giver in the United States.  In several Eastern European and Latin American countries this little Jesus comes secretly and leaves presents for the children set up around the Christmas tree. Christkind was popularized by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation as a reaction against the overly Catholic symbol of St. Nicolas.  He is usually depicted as an angelic child complete with wings.  The name Christkind has been suggested as the origin of Kris Cringle, one of Santa Claus’ many names.

3) Knecht Ruprecht

In German folklore the Servant Rupert, is a companion of Sinterklaas.  He is depicted as a man with a long beard, dressed in fur, covered in soot, carrying a walking staff and a sack of ashes with jingle-bells hanging from his clothes.  He is sometimes in the company of fairies and men with blackened skin dressed as old women.  When he arrives, he asks the children if they know how to pray.  Those children who can are rewarded with fruits, nuts and cookies.  Those children who cannot pray, he beats with his sack of ashes.  In the shoes of naughty children he places lumps of coal, rocks, or switches for their parents to use in spanking them.

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4) Befana

To Americans witches are associated with Halloween and are the furthest things from our minds during the season of cheer and good will.  That’s not the case in Italy where the Befana is the popular symbol of the Christmas season.  Befana is an old woman who brings presents to the good Italian children on January 5, the Eve of the Epiphany.  Instead of a jolly old elf, she is known as a raucous and shameless Witch.  Instead of a sleigh, Befana flies through the air on that most traditional instrument of witchy aeronautics, her broom.  For the good children she leaves presents and candies in their socks. For the bad children she leaves a lump of coal.

 

5) Krampus

Krampus is a popular Christmas spirit especially around Austria and Hungary.  A traveling companion of St. Nicolas, he is charged with punishing the naughty children.  He appears as a fearsome beast like a goat dressed in black rags, carrying old heavy chains.    Some traditions tell that Krampus is the devil and the chains are representative of his servitude in Hell.  At the beginning of December, especially on the night of December 5, men don regalia made from goat-hair, hideously detailed masks with red horns, long tongues and chains.  They get drunk and wander the city streets with switches to threaten and frighten the children.  Late at night, when St. Nicolas is preparing to visit a house and leave his presents, the children are warned that they must go to sleep and not try to peak out and catch a glimpse of St. Nicolas, otherwise the Krampus might snatch them up and carry them away in his sack.

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6) Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is an elfin figure with blackened skin stained from the soot of all the chimneys down which he descends on Christmas.  A popular character in Belgium and the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet is a companion of Sinterklaas and shows up during the weeks preceding the Feast of St. Nicolas.  The Zwarte Pieten entertain children and toss out cookies and candies.  The origin of Zwarte Piet is mysterious.  One tradition says that Sinterklaas defeated Satan and pressed him into service but, in the 19th century Zwarte Piet was remade to resemble a Moor.  Some traditions say that he was a slave named Peter, rescued and liberated by the Sinterklaas, becoming his regular companion.  In modern festivals Zwarte Piet is depicted with black skin, red lips, dressed in bright, colorful Renaissance attire.  To the good children Zwarte Piet brings presents and candy.  For the bad children he carries a bundle of birch branches for their parents to use in punishing them.  Especially naughty children face the prospect of Zwarte Piet throwing them in a giant sack and spiriting them away to Spain.

 

7) Tió de Nadal

The tradition of Tió de Nadal comes out certain regions of Spain such as Catalonia and Aragon.  In some ways it bears a striking resemblance to the Yule Log, common in Anglo and Germanic countries.  The iconic Tió is a hollowed out log, roughly one foot in length, often with one end painted with a smiling face, set up as a decoration in certain households.  Beginning on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, and throughout the Christmas season the Log is cared for like an idol.  He is treated with offerings of food every night from the Feast until Christmas.  At night someone in the house will cover the Log with a quilt to keep him warm.  Although similar in theme to the Germanic Yule Log, the Tió differs in a quite profound and rather unique manner.  Another name for the Tió de Nadal is Caga tió, or the “pooping log.”  On either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day the household sings traditional Christmas songs associated with the Tió while beating him with sticks, encouraging him to poop.  When the Tió opens up he “poops” candy, dried fruit, and nuts which everyone share together.

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8) Yule Goat

The Scandinavian Santa Claus and is often referred to as the Yule Goat, a tradition native to Northern Europe.  Yule is the old Germanic name for the Midwinter festival that became associated with Christmas, on which day the Yule Goat was slaughtered and eaten.  Scholars connect this tradition with Thor, the Nordic god of thunder who rode his chariot through the night sky at Yule drawn by two goats named Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.  In countries such as Finland the Yule Goat was a horrid beast that terrified children and could only be pacified with gifts rather than delivering them.  In other parts of Scandinavia the Yule Goat was a benevolent spirit who monitored the Yule festivities to assure that the rituals were performed properly.  One tradition has a man dressing in the furry costume of the Yule Goat, complete with long horns which was theatrically sacrificed and resurrected to the tune of a traditional Yule song.  Modern Yule Goats however, are often ornaments fashioned from straw into the shape of a goat and adorned with red ribbons used to decorate for the Christmas season.  Larger than life sized Yule Goats, also made from straw are set up around town and are often the unfortunate targets of hooligans who set them on fire on the days leading up to Christmas.

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A Scandinavian Yule Goat