Definition and Origin:

Noun: Wassail comes from the Old English salutation Was Hael, which translated means “be you healthy”.  It refers both to the salute and to the drink wassail, which is a hot mulled cider associated with the New Year and with the tradition of wassailing.

VerbWassailing is a tradition in parts of southern England which falls into two distinct types.  In one type in which participants walked into the orchard led by a king and queen of the wassail singing and left a piece of toast, put into the wassail drink to sop up the liquid, into the trees in order to guarantee a good harvest of apples the following year.  The superstition is that the singing both awakens the apple trees to prepare them to be fruitful in the coming season as well as scaring away any evil spirits that may linger near the trees.  The other wassailing ceremony refers to what we think of as modern day caroling.  Revelers walked from house to house singing and drinking wassail.  This was done traditionally on Twelfth Night.

Pronunciation: Wah-sail

Why this word?

Anyone who grew up singing Christmas carols, especially Here We Come A-wassailing/ The Wassail Song, most likely has some lingering childhood curiosity over the terms used in some carols.  I still remember every member of my elementary school choir singing the incorrect words to Walking in a Winter Wonderland. Instead of conspiring by the fire, perspiring by the fire made far more sense to us.  Likewise, wassail was intriguing because no adult could give us a definition that made sense or seemed not to be made up on the spur of the moment.

More importantly, I find the word important because it keeps alive past traditions.  By keeping us linked to these traditions through use of the word in songs we are staying connected to a piece of history.  People do not go door singing Christmas carols very much any longer, but by keeping alive the definition of wassail and its use in song perhaps more people will decide to revive the tradition.  If not, then at the very least there will hopefully be fewer people confused about Christmas carol lyrics.

 

How to use the word wassail?

“Here we come a-wassailing

Among the leaves so green

Here we come a-wandering

So fair to be seen

 

Love and you come to you

And to you your wassail, too,

And God bless you and send you

A Happy New Year

And God send you a Happy New Year. 

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Written by Kate Fulton

Kate Fulton has a bachelor’s degree in classics and psychology from the University of Massachusetts and is working on a library science degree from Simmons College. She has always been fascinated by words- their usage, spelling, and etymology. Kate may be one of the few people who enjoyed the verbal section of the SAT. Yes, she is a word geek. Currently she bores her husband and young daughter with her love of vocabulary.

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