Magazine article The Christian Century

Why We Wassail

Magazine article The Christian Century

Why We Wassail

Article excerpt

THE NIGHT WAS so cold that neither of our dogs dared leave their warm dens--even though they were certainly listening, and undoubtedly wondering what on earth the ragtag group of humans was up to out in the frigid midnight air. The answer, in a word: wassailing.

In addition to being the season of resolutions, January is the season of wassailing. In Europe and early America, Twelfth Night was the traditional night for wassailing.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The truth is that I knew next to nothing about wassailing until two of my sisters got into the organic fruit growing business. Before that, my knowledge was limited to what I could glean from the 19th-century carol "Here We Come A-wassailing."

But that sort of wassailing--house-to-house caroling with an element of trick-or-treat thrown in--is relatively recent. The word and the tradition are much older. And although they have gone through changes, what has not changed is that this ritual takes place in deepest, darkest winter, and expresses gratitude to the plants and animals who provide us with sustenance, a sort of interspecies enactment of the golden rule.

As organic farmers, my extended family and I also feel gratitude to the plants and animals that sustain us. And we seek to understand and enhance the mutually beneficial relationships between plants, animals, fungi, and microbes, knowing that if they are happy and healthy, so our fruit and vegetables, and our family and customers, will be too. And so for over a dozen years we have carried on the ancient wassailing tradition, and each year learn more about its history and meaning.

It turns out that the word wassail comes from an ancient Saxon greeting of roughly a thousand years ago: Woes pu heel, "be thou hale," or more colloquially, "be in good health," used for both "hello" and "goodbye." By the 12th century, a contraction of the ancient greeting had become the salutation offered as a toast, Wees heel. Over time, the two Saxon words merged to become the English word wassail, and the meaning changed to refer to the drink itself, often a hot spiced wine, beer, or cider, fortified with brandy, whiskey, or whatever stronger spirits were at hand.

The wassailing tradition, however, predates even the word. While doing her winter reading, my sister Teresa found many versions of our mid-winter's night trek to the orchard. People all across northern Europe would brave the cold to go from field to field, stall to stall, and tree to tree, offering each plant and animal a drink in gratitude for past nourishment, and in hopes of future health and fertility. At some point, the ancient tradition merged with the word wassail, which also became a verb, as in Robert Herrick's poetry collection Hesperides (1648):

   Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
   You many a Plum and many a Peare:
   For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
   As you do give them Wassailing.

Other observers of the wassailing ritual pointed to a similar understanding of reciprocal relationships and interdependency. In medieval England, an observer wrote of the local farmers: "They go into the Ox-house to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to their health." Why? Because healthy beasts to work (and fertilize) your fields will lead to a good harvest, which will sustain you, your family, and your community.

Some 200 years later, Henry David Thoreau, in his essay "Wild Apples" (which appeared in the Atlantic in 1862), describes the wassailing tradition in Devonshire, England. …

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