Yuletide and Wassailing

The 8th century Anglo-Saxon historian Bede wrote that in pre-Christian England

‘The first month, which the Latins call January, is [called] Giuli’; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winter¢lleth; November, Blodmo- nath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called”

By Giuli, we must understand Yule.

They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 Dec.], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord.  That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, ‘mother’s night’, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.”

What Bede was perhaps less aware of was that Yuletide was not peculiar to the English, but was a festival common to all Germanic peoples, Saxons, Franks, Norse, Danes, etc.

The traditions associated with Yuletide are a fascinating treasure of ancestral wisdom and cultural profusion. Before Christmas dethroned Nordic pagan custom, Yule was a festival observed throughout Germanic Europe. An important element in this huge traditional body was the wassailing, which was so prevalent in Anglo-Saxon England that the name endured in a Christmas Carol (Here we come a-wassailing…) and a drink, wassail, which in turn derived from a festive wish of good health. The word ‘wassail’ is used for the activity of drinking to the health of someone, or in this case, drinking to the health of the apple trees, whose ‘sanctification’ around the New Year was essential for a good harvest.

How do we know that?  We have a first occurrance of’ the word ‘wassail’ in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work, “The history of the Kings of Britain”, composed around 1135. It is a fictional narrative whose purpose is to entertain, not inform, but whose historiographical value has long been acknowledged by scholars who see it as a turning point in medieval historiography. But I digress. Geoffrey, therefore, tells a compelling story which deserves to be given in full here below: (scroll further down for an English translation).

Interea uero reuersi sunt nuncii ex Germania conduxeruntque decem et octo naues electis militibus plenas. Conduxerunt etiam filiam Hengisti uocabulo Ronwein, cuius pulcritudo nulli secunda uidebatur. Postquam autem uenerunt, inuitauit Hengistus Vortegirnum regem in domum suam ut et nouum aedificium et nouos milites qui applicuerant uideret. Venit ilico rex priuatim et laudauit tam subitum opus et milites inuitatos retinuit. Vt ergo regiis epulis refectus fuit, egressa est puella de thalamo, aureum ciphum plenum uino ferens. Accedens deinde propius regi, flexis genibus dixit:

‘Lauerd king, wasseil’.

At ille, uisa facie puellae, ammiratus est tantum eius decorem et incaluit. Denique interrogauit interpretem suum quid dixerat puella et quid ei respondere debebat. Cui interpres dixit:

‘Vocauit te dominum regem et uocabulo salutationis honorauit. Quod autem respondere debes est “drincheil”’.

Respondens deinde Vortegirnus ‘drincheil’, iussit puellam potare cepitque ciphum de manu ipsius et osculatus est eam et potauit. Ab illo die usque in hodiernum mansit consuetudo illa in Britannia quia in conuiuiis qui potat ad alium dicit ‘wasseil’, qui uero post illum recipit potum respondet ‘drincheil’. Vortegirnus autem, diuerso genere potus inebriatus, intrante Sathana in corde suo, amauit puellam et postulauit eam a patre suo.

Meanwhile the envoys had returned from Germany, bringing with them eighteen ships full of chosen knights. They also brought Hengest’s daughter Ronwein, a girl of unsurpassed beauty. After their arrival Hengest invited king Vortigern to his home to view the new construction and the newly arrived knights. The king immediately arrived in private, praised the swiftly completed work and engaged the knights who had been summoned. After he had been refreshed by a royal banquet, the girl came out of her chamber, carrying a golden goblet full of wine. Going up to the king, she curtseyed and said:

‘Lauerd king, wasseil’.

At the sight of the girl’s face he was amazed by her beauty and inflamed with desire. He asked his interpreter what the girl had said and what he should reply. He answered:

‘She called you lord king and honoured you with a word of greeting. You should reply “drincheil”’.

Then Vortigern, giving the reply ‘drincheil’, told the girl to drink, took the goblet from her hand with a kiss and drank. From that day forward it has been the custom in Britain that at feasts a drinker says to his neighbour ‘wasseil’ and the one who receives the drink after him replies ‘drincheil’. Vortigern became drunk on various kinds of liquor and, as Satan entered into his heart, asked her father for the girl he loved. Satan, I repeat, had entered into his heart, for despite being a Christian he wanted to sleep with a pagan woman.

Apple Tree Wassails are the songs that are sung to the health of the apple trees in English; the expression is also used for the overall celebration which usually takes place in the orchards or wherever there is an apple tree. Some people are reported to wassail every single tree in the orchard, others just pick one tree to stand in for all the rest. The date for wassailing apple trees varies widely, being Christmas Eve in some areas, and Twelfth Night Eve (Twelfth Night is January 6th) in others. New Year’s Day in the morning was the traditional time for “Apple Howling” when boys beat the trees with willow rods and chanted rhymes. In many areas, people drink to the trees on January 17th which corresponds to Jan. 6th before the calendar was changed in England in 1752, and that gives an idea of how conservative this custom is.

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.

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