The practice of going door to door while singing Christmas Carols is also known as Wassailing. Upon singing at the doorstep of a house, the singers in return ask for a ‘wassail’ which could be some kind of refreshment or candy and even money sometimes. Though, the word caroling is more often used now, ‘wassailing’ as a term is used in many a Christmas carols, for instance “Here we come a-wassailing.”
It is believed, that the practice goes back a long way and has its origins in the Middle Ages when people snag as a way to get their feudal lords to give them something in return. It was distinctly different from begging, as it was more festive and charitable in nature.
The carol, “ We wish you a merry Christmas” is a wonderful insight into the tradition of wassailing even though we barely realize it now when we listen to it. The reference to ‘figgy pudding’ and ‘good cheer’ is clearly indicating the wassail beverage. It was said until you served the wassailers this beverage, they would not leave, as is the case in the song when they sing, “we won’t leave until we get some.”
History Of Wassailing
It is almost impossible to say exactly how old the tradition of wassailing is but many theories have propagated around it. Most scholars agree that it is the result of a pagan ritual. It is also believed to be older than Christmas, therefore thinking of wassailing as a predominantly Christmas ritual would be wrong. It was being practiced long before Christmas came to be celebrated. Even the date on which the ‘wassail’ is celebrated is subject to much debate. Most people choose the twelfth night (6th January) whereas others still prefer the ‘Old Twelvey Night’ (17th January).
Even though it is now viewed as the equivalent of caroling, what differentiates wassailing from caroling is the fact that it was meant to serve a higher purpose. It was believed that by wassailing it would be possible to chase away the evil spirits by waking the cider apple trees which in turn would ensure a great harvest that season. The practice as it was followed back then, differed only very slightly from one place to the other but there was always a wassail king and queen who led the singers.
At each orchard, the group would stop as the wassail king and the queen would go about completing the rituals. They would strike up a tune and the others would join in playing an assorted variety of homemade instruments. The crowds who had gathered in those orchards would shout and beat their drums, resorting to drumming on even their pots and pans. By now, you can surely imagine the racket that was created, and as if that wasn’t enough, the soldiers would never fail to provide some kind of a gun salute to make sure that the message was driven home to the evil spirits.
They would then move on to the next orchard and go through the entire proceeding all over again. Hard as it may sound to believe, this practice is still followed rather religiously in some parts of the world. The prime cider producing region of England, the West Country, Somerset and Devon still follow the practice of wassailing.