Wassailing is a very old custom that is rarely done today. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which means ‘good health’. Originally, wassail was a drink made of hot beer, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. It served huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter. Jesus College, at the University of Oxford, has a Wassail bowl, which is covered with silver. It can contain 10 gallons of drink! Wassailing was traditionally made on New Year’s Eve and night twelve, but some rich people drank Wassail on all 12 Christmas days! Wassail’s drink mix was sometimes called “lamb’s wool” because the pulp of roasted apples looked frothy and a bit like lamb’s wool. Here is a recipe for wassail.
A legend about how Wassailing was created, says that a beautiful Saxon maid called Rowena gave a wine to Prince Vortigen while toasting with the words “waes hael”. Throughout the centuries, a great ceremony developed around the custom of drinking wassail. The bowl was taken to a room with a big fanfare, a traditional carol was sung over the drink and, finally, the steaming drink was served.
From this, it became another way of saying Merry Christmas to each other!
One of the most popular carols was the following:
Here we come to-wassailing
Among the green leaves,
Here we come to-wassailing,
So fair to be seen:
Love and joy come to you,
And you too, your wassail,
And may God bless you and send you.
A happy New Year,
And may God send you,
A happy New Year.
The Mumming is also an ancient pagan custom that was an excuse for people to have a party at Christmas! It means ‘make deviation in disguise’. The tradition was that men and women exchanged clothes, put on masks and visited their neighbors, sang, danced or played with a silly plot. The leader or narrator of the mimes was dressed as Santa Claus.
The custom of Mumming could go back to Roman times, when people used to dress for the New Year holidays. It is thought that, in the United Kingdom, St. Thomas Day was the first time or the shortest day of the year.
Different types of entertainment were carried out in different parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in England. In parts of Durham, Yorkshire and Devon there was a special sword dance. There were also different names for the mummy in the United Kingdom as well. In Scotland it was known as ‘Gusards’ or ‘Guising’; in Somerset, ‘Mumping’; in Warwickshire or ‘Thomasing’; and ‘Corning’ in Kent.
In medieval times, it had become an excuse for people to beg around houses and commit crimes. It got so bad that Henry VIII made a law that says anyone who catches the mom wearing a mask would be incarcerated for three months!
A poem that people used to say when they said:
Christmas is coming, the meat is getting fat,
Please drop a penny in the old man’s hat.
Over the years, this became a very similar poem that some carol singers say today:
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
The first settlers in the United Kingdom brought the custom of Mumming to Canada. It is known as Murmuring in Canada, but it is forbidden in most places because people used it as an excuse to beg.
There is also a famous Mummer New Year’s Day parade in Philadelphia, in the United States, which lasts more than six hours! The mummy is still made in parts of the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.