Wassail and Good Yule!
This old, Christmas-tide greeting rings with the sound of ancient days and half-forgotten mythologies of old, Germanic solstice celebrations. Today, few truly know what wassailing means, or where traditions such as the Yule log arise; they are quaint terms in old carols, Dickensian Christmas stories, and adaptations in neopagan solstice ceremonies.
But are these truly ancient customs from the days of the yore, or do they merely seem like “ye olde traditions” to our modern sensibilities? The answer is decidedly yes.
Wassail is a salute, a blessing and a beverage – all interestingly interconnected.
As a salute, the term is a Middle English contraction of the Old English waes hael, or “be in good health”, the equivalent to our modern toast “to your health”.
The other two wassail traditions – as both a fall and Christmas beverage and a ceremony to ensure a good crop of cider apples – are closely interwoven to one another, and both are also certainly medieval in origin. Wassail the beverage is a hot, mulled punch, traditionally made of cider mulled with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toast. Some counties use a base of mulled cider and ale. In many local traditions, the toast is itself made from an apple bread.
Modern recipes often replace cider with a base of wine, fruit juice, or mulled ale, sometimes with brandy or sherry added. As we are about to see, however, without cider, the actual purpose of drinking wassail is essentially lost.
The tradition of wassailing originates in the cider-producing region of south-western England (primarily Devon, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset) and involves singing and drinking to the health of the apple trees, with the purpose to “awaken” the slumbering spirits of the cider apple trees, to drive off malevolent spirits and to ensure a good apple harvest the following year. Although he exact origin of wassailing is unclear – there are no clear references before the High Middle Ages – it is one more of many folk traditions that long predate both the Conquest, and likely Christianity.
As a folk festival, the exact particulars differ from county to county, even village to village, but “going a wassailing” has the same basic elements. A King and Queen are chosen from the village to lead a procession from orchard to orchard. The procession plays music, sings songs and dances. When they read an orchard, the “Wassail Queen” is lifted into the boughs of the tree where she places a piece of toasted apple bread, soaked in wassail as a gift to the tree spirits. As she does this, the gathering sings an incantation to the spirits, often reminiscent of a children’s rhyme. Then the band is off, singing and dancing to the next orchard.
Both elements of fertility worship and the evolution and blending of wassailing into that of caroling are quite obvious, as seen in the traditional, medieval carol the Gloucestershire Wassail:
Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.
Yuletide originated as a three day, Germanic pagan mid-winter festival, first documented in a Gothic document from the 4th century AD. It is referenced by the Norse Prose Edda, which clearly establishes a religious link, using the kenning of “Yule-beings” for the gods and goddesses.
Precisely how and when Yule “migrated” to coincide with the 12 days of Christmas is a bit unclear. The festival was originally celebrated from late December to early January on a date determined by the lunar Germanic calendar. The festival was placed on December 25 when the Christian calendar (Julian calendar) was adopted. About AD 730, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included the months geola or giuli corresponding with either modern December or December and January. He gave December 25 as the first day of the heathen year and wrote that the Anglo-Saxons celebrated all night long to honor the Germanic divine "mothers":
“They began the year with December 25, the day some now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen term Mōdraniht, that is, the mothers' night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through.”
The Heimskringla, or Chronicle of the Norse Kings, credits King Haakon the Good with both Christianizing Norway and moving Yule to coincide with Christmas. Whatever the case, “Yule" is still used as a term in the Nordic and English-speaking countries for the Christian Christmas, but also for other religious holidays of the season. In modern times, Yule has gradually come to be used as a secular name for the same traditions as Christmas. Yule is also used to a lesser extent in English-speaking countries to refer to Christmas, as well as a winter-solstice ceremony celebrated by neopagans.
So the holiday of Yule is indeed a part of antiquity, but what is surprising is that some of the customs most associated with it, such as the Yule log, may not be.
A Yule log is a large wooden log which is burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Yule or Christmas celebrations in several European cultures, usually associated with Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Twelfth Night. It features prominently in many old, English traditions, and because of its relationship to Yule and wassailing traditions, has long been assumed to come from the Anglo-Saxons. One of the first people to do so was the English historian Henry Bourne, who, writing in the 1720s, described the practice occurring in the Tyne valley. Bourne theorized that the practice derives from customs in 6th to 7th century Anglo-Saxon paganism.
Bourne’s theory was supported by Robert Chambers, in his 1832 work, Book of Days, who notes that "two popular observances belonging to Christmas are more especially derived from the worship of our pagan ancestors—the hanging up of the mistletoe and the burning of the Yule log." The theory was cemented into popular culture and “accepted wisdom” when embraced by James George Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough. Frazer asserted that "the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive" in the Yule log custom. Frazer records traditions from England, France, among the South Slavs, in Central Germany (Meiningen) and western Switzerland.
While Frazer was certainly correct that a ceremonial cutting of a particularly large tree around mid-winter reoccurred throughout Europe, particularly north of the Alps, he seems to have ignored that the details of these customs often have little in common, and far less of a “folk religion” component than, for example, wassailing. Most importantly, from a Anglo-Saxon or Norse point of view, there is not a single account of the Yule log in Great Britain prior to the late 17th century, nor any reliable evidence of any formal tradition of a “Yule log” throughout Scandinavia or northern Germany until the late Renaissance, in stark contrast to Yule, wassail, Christmas trees or winter candle-lighting ceremonies, all of which can be easily traced back through the Middle Ages, and often well beyond.
Instead, the strongest traditions of a “Yule log” come from Slavic lands, particularly Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria. Although the specifics differ in each country, the general tradition is that a log is cut at dawn on Christmas Eve, usually while the Lord’s Prayer is recited. Sometimes a cross is cut into one end of the log, sometimes it is blessed with holy water. The log is then placed in the hearth at sundown on Christmas Eve and the family prays for good fortune in the next year. The log has to burn all night and it is believed that its warmth and light symbolize the coming of Christ. Sometimes the fire is put off using wine in the morning. Remains of the log are cherished and sometimes ashes are spread over a field or vineyard for good luck.
While these Slavic customs may themselves be part of pre-Christian tradition, they have nothing to do with the Nordic Yuletide. Whatever the true source, however, wassail, Yule, the Yule log, caroling and all of these other traditions, ancient, medieval and modern, show the enduring and adaptable power of Christmas to weave old and new, pagan and Christian, Nordic and Mediterranean into a single, enduring celebration of the coming of the Light in the heart of winter’s darkness.