- A hot, spiced alcoholic beverage traditionally served at Twelfth's Night or Christmas Eve celebrations; historically, the drink used to toast someone's health in Old English custom
- A festive revelry with drinking, carousing, and good company (Archaic and Historical)
- A song sung by those participating in a festive party (Archaic and Historical)
- An Old English salutation used when toasting someone's health (Archaic and Historical)
- To sing festive songs in company, especially Christmas songs (Archaic)
- To drink and carouse in company (Archaic)
- To drink a toast to someone's or something's health (Archaic and Historical)
Many of us might be familiar with the word wassail due to the Christmas carol "Here We Come A'Wassailing." That carol is recounting a tradition of rowdy carousing and (sometimes forceful) gift exchanging which we no longer practice today, although it bears some slight resemblance to modern Christmas caroling. The word's original meaning in English was different, but it also had something to do with partying and drinking. Wassail was originally something that someone would say in Anglo-Saxon custom when drinking to someone's health. If, for example, you were an Anglo-Saxon chieftain, you might drink wassail to your rival after agreeing to a treaty. However, words are slippery things, and wassail's meaning expanded to many other things related to this custom. First, it came to refer to the practice and the act of toasting someone's health in its entirety, and then it came to refer to the drink used to make the toast as well! Thus, you could say "Wassail!" as you wassailed a friend with a mug of wassail. Over time, wassail's meaning came to apply only to a specific kind of hot alcoholic drink served chiefly at Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night celebrations. In time, the word also was used to refer to Christmas carols or the act of singing Christmas carols or other festive songs.
Today, most uses of wassail have fallen out of use, but the hot alcoholic drink remains! Many people still enjoy a bowl of wassail at their Christmas Eve or Twelfth Night's feasts. If you encounter a hot, mulled cider at a holiday get-together this year it just might be a wassail, especially if it is served with apples or oranges. In fact, wassail has become very much a Christmas word. Although this understanding is not strictly accurate, wassail is sometimes used colloquially as more or less synonymous with Christmas caroling. It is likely that wassail would have passed out of use entirely by now, if it were not for the fact that it is preserved in Christmas traditions and especially Christmas carols.
Example: As the Twelfth's Night feast wore on, Harold drank cup after cup of hot, spiced wassail from the bowl.
Example: The whole town danced and drank late into the night at the wild wassail put on by the Earl. (Archaic)
Example: The whole family joined together in heartily singing wassails in celebration of the Christmas season. (Archaic)
Example: The chieftain raised his glass and drank wassail to his host and brother. (Archaic and Historical)
The word derives from the Old Norse salutation ves heil, which means "be healthy." This greeting consists of the Old Norse verb form "vesa" meaning "to be" and heill meaning "health." The word was first used as a drinking toast by Danes in England, and that usage was eventually appropriated by English natives. The word was applied to the spiced drink used in Christmas Celebrations around 1300. It gained the meaning of "a festive drinking celebration" around 1600 and the verb meaning of "singing Christmas songs" in the 1700's.
Wassails: The present third person singular tense communicates an ongoing action of any of wassail's various verb meanings.
Example: Hrothgar usually wassails all night and is then desperately hung over in the morning. (Archaic)
Wassailed: The past tense of wassail communicates a past action of any of wassail's various verb meanings.
Example: After their hard earned victory in battle, the king wassailed each of his warriors by name. (Archaic and Historical)
Wassailing: The present participle or gerund form of wassail communicates an immediately occurring or continuously occurring action of any of wassail's various verb meanings.
Example: The children's wassailing of a few Christmas carols brightened the day of the elderly people at the retirement center. (Archaic)
From William Shakespeare's Hamlet:
The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swagg'ring up-spring reels;
And as he drains his draught of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
Here, Hamlet is explaining to Horatio why they have just heard a noisy discharge of cannons and blowing of trumpets. The cannons and trumpets are sounded in conjunction with King Claudius' toast-making at a wild, drinking party, and Hamlet describes Claudius' participation in this revelry as "keeping wassail."
- Wassail is an Old English salutation made to someone when drinking their health with an alcoholic beverage. Remember that it is a salutation because it sounds kind of like "what's up?" But instead of up they say "ail" because they are greeting with a spiced ale.
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of wassail. Did you use wassail in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.