The Somerset Wassail
1. Wassail and Wassail, all over the town,
The cup it is white and the ale it is brown;
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the malt of the best barley:
Chorus: For it's your wassail and it's our wassail
And it's joy be to you and a jolly wassail.
2. Oh master and missus, are you all within
Pray open the door and let us come in;
Oh master and missus a sitting by the fire
Pray think upon poor travellers, a travelling in the mire:
3. Oh where is the maid with the silver headed pin
To open the door and let us come in
Oh master and missus it is our desire
A good loaf of cheese and a toast by the fire:
4. There was an old man and he had an old cow
and how for to keep her he did not know how,
He built up a barn for to keep his cow warm
And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm:
5. The girt dog of Langport, he burnt his long tail
And this is the day we go singing wassail,
Oh master and missus now we must be gone
God bless all in this house, till we do come again:
The Somerset Wassail, although not originally from Oxfordshire, or Headington Quarry,
has, never-the-less been adopted by HQMD and is performed every year on Boxing Day.
Origins of wassailing / Yulesinging
How far the tradition of wassailing dates back is unknown, but it has connections with Anglo-Saxon traditions; the word Wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl, meaning "be thou hale"—i.e., "be in good health". Thus wassailing likely predates the Norman conquest in 1066.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary "waes hael" is the Middle English (and hence post-Norman) spelling parallel to OE "wes hal".The American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, gives Old Norse "ves heill" as the source of Middle English "waeshaeil". The correct response to the toast is Drinc hæl.
In recent times, the toast has come to be synonymous with Christmas, but since Christianity gradually replaced the indigenous Anglo-Saxon religion around the 7th and 8th centuries, there is no evidence that the traditional ceremony of wassailing is Christian in origin.
Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night (mostly regarded as January 6, but more properly the evening of January 5). However most people insist on wassailing on "Old Twelvey Night" (January 17) as that would have been the correct date before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.
In the middle ages, the wassail was a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of recipient-initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from begging. This point is made in the song "Here We Come A-Wassailing", when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that
we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door
But we are friendly neighbours whom you have seen before.
The lord of the manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, i.e.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year
This would be given in the form of the song being sung. Wassailing is the background practice against which an English carol such as "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" dating back to sixteenth century England, can be made sense of. The carol lies in the English tradition where wealthy people of the community gave Christmas treats to the carolers on Christmas Eve such as 'figgy puddings'.
Although wassailing is often described in innocuous and sometimes nostalgic terms, the practice in England has not always been considered so innocent. Wassailing was associated with rowdy bands of young men who would enter the homes of wealthy neighbours and demand free food and drink (in a manner similar to the modern children's Halloween practice of trick-or-treating). If the householder refused, he was usually cursed, and occasionally his house was vandalized. The example of the exchange is seen in their demand for "figgy pudding" and "good cheer", i.e., the wassail beverage, without which the wassailers in the song will not leave; "We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here".