Wassail!

Tomorrow, is the 6th of January, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany, and the date celebrated as the day the Magi brought gifts to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem

That means tonight is Twelfth Night.

Why tonight and not tomorrow night? Days used to start at sunset so when the sun goes down tonight will actually be the night of the twelfth day. After sunset on January 6th, the Twelve Days of Christmas would be no more, so having a feast then would have just been silly to the Tudors.

How was Twelfth Night observed by the Tudors, you ask?

Often from the floor, where they had fallen over drunk.

That is, of course, exaggeration. It was considered gross for people to get drunk, especially in mixed company during a religious festival. There was, however, a very ‘convivial spirit’ during the festivities, due in no small part to wassail.

Wassail is both the name of both a beverage and the toast proclaimed while drinking it. The toast originated from wæs hæl, the Old English way of saying ‘be you healthy’. It was used in the same way give a toast to someone’s health nowadays. The beverage used today is basically mulled cider with perhaps some brandy or sherry in it. During the Tudor time period, however, it was a bit different.

First, the cider in the Tudor era had a fair percentage of alcohol in it (what we call Hard Cider in America to distinguish it from non fermented cider) to make it potable. Water was notoriously “bad” in England back then could kill you stone dead with cholera or other fun disease. Alcohol kills anything “bad” in liquids so beer, mead, ale, etc … were the drinks of choice for people, from babies to the elderly.

The cider was heated in a large vessel and copious amounts of sugar was added, along with generous measures of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The cider would then be covered with toasted bread which would be used as sops.

That reminds me of something I have been meaning to ask. When I was growing up in Kentucky, the verb “sop” – as in to “sop gravy up with a biscuit” – was commonly used. Do other people still use the word sop or is it a “linguistic isolate” (like using the word “poke” to mean a bag) leftover from 16th century English?

Many people would go “wassailing” on Twelfth Night. They would go to the homes of friends and neighbors (especially those with deeper pockets than others) and sing outside the door until the household rewarded them with some wassail. If the master of the house was a person with enough wealth and/or social standing they might also be expected to provide alms and food, as well. This tradition is obvious in the lyrics of the Christmas carol The Wassail Song:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
[refrain] Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.
We are not daily beggers
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors’ children
Whom you have seen before

[refrain]

Good master and good mistress,
As you sit beside the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who wander in the mire.

[refrain]

We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.

[refrain]

Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a cheese,
And of your Christmas loaf.

[refrain]

God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go.

[final refrain]

Twelfth Night was a time to carouse, and for the rich and powerful entertainment was often part of the proceedings. One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Twelfth Night, was written to be preformed at this time. Like the “misrule” common during the season, the play is full of inversions of power/order. The heroine dresses as a man, a servant thinks a Countess is in love with him, and other tomfoolery that would have had Shakespeare’s audience howling with mirth.

The tradition of power inversion dates all the way back to the week-long December holiday of Saturnalia, practiced throughout the Roman Empire. As part of the revelry, Roman masters would serve their servants and slaves.

Speaking of those who toil with no pay, I’ll be busy all day tomorrow taking down Christmas decorations. Apparently it is unlucky to leave them hanging after the final day of Christmas. I’ve got what seems like a googolplex of ornaments and trappings to get squared away by Sundown tomorrow.

Wish me luck.

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