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Drink hail!

00:00 Fri 19th Apr 2002 |

Q. What exactly is wassailing

A. It's not often used these days, and is often jocular when it is, but to wassail is to carouse.

Q. How so

A. The Norse ves heill (cognate with the Anglo-Saxon wes hel) meant literally 'be in health' and was used as a drinking toast. (After all, some still use 'good health' instead of cheers.) The reply was 'Drink hail!'

Q. So it's a kind of Dark-Age 'bottoms up'

A. In a nutshell, yes - at least, it was originally. It eventually came to refer more to the drink itself, usually sweetened ale or wine, flavoured with spices and roasted apples. There was one particular variety known as 'lamb's wool', so called because it was a fluffy concoction made of whipped apple pulp and ale. Here's a recipe: 'Next crowne the bowl full / With gentle lambs-wooll; / Adde sugar, nutmeg and ginger, / With a store of ale too; / And thus ye must doe / To make the wassaile a swinger.'

Q. The wassail

A. Oh yes, that's the other thing. Both Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Yule season, were wassail nights. People would go from house to house with a bowl and 'wassail' with their neighbours.

And then, there are the fruit trees.

Q. Fruit trees

A. Apparently fruit trees were serenaded with wassailing songs: 'Wassail the trees, that they may bear / You many a plum and many a pear.' This may be a tradition that goes back to Roman times, when the goddess of apples, Pomona, was schmoozed with sacrifices in order that she would authorise a good crop that year. A more direct descendant of this is the practice - as reported in 1892 in Peasant Speeches of Devon - of West-Country farmers: 'On Wassail Eve it was customary for farmers to pour large quantities of cyder on the roots of the primest apple-trees in the orchard.'

Q. And what does toast have to do with all this

A. The verb to toast, in the sense of to drink the health of, came about as a result of the medieval practice of floating a piece of spiced toasted bread in the punch to be drunk in order to give it more flavour. So the drink became the toast cup and the drinking of it became toasting.

Q. Not to be confused with

A. An early Jamaican form of rap, in which so-called 'toasters' would do their own thing over largely instrumental versions of other-people's records.

See also the answerbank article on cheers

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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