The fire is lit, then they sing and dance in the frosty night, offering good wishes to a fruit tree and slurping from a bowl of carefully brewed spiced alcohol. This is wassailing, a pagan ceremony to bring on the spring. Once an ancient Twelfth Night ritual on the wane, wassailing is increasingly being appropriated by modern food-and-drink folk.Why not? It's fun, and it's Twelfth Night -- approximately, since traditions differ slightly on just which night is the twelfth.
Although the etymology caught my eye:
Sounds like a quaint Nordic custom, doesn't it?I would have told you it was Old English rather than Danish, although it's hard to argue with the OED. My reasons for doing so are that it is a term that was put into the mouth of the Anglo-Saxons by none other than Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Well, actually, you might be on to something. The term "wassail" comes from the Old Norse "ves heill", meaning "be healthy", and was probably introduced by Danish-speaking inhabitants of England, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In the meantime, the messengers returned from Germany, with eighteen ships full of the best soldiers they could get. They also brought along with them Rowen, the daughter of Hengist, one of the most accomplished beauties of that age. After their arrival, Hengist invited the king to his house, to view his new buildings, and the new soldiers that were come over. The king readily accepted of his invitation, but privately, and having highly commended the magnificence of the structure, enlisted the men into his service. Here he was entertained at a royal banquet; and when that was over, the young lady came out of her chamber bearing a golden cup full of wine, with which she approached the king, and making a low courtesy, said to him, "Lauerd king wacht heil!" The king, at the sight of the lady's face, was on a sudden both surprised and inflamed with her beauty; and calling to his interpreter, asked him what she said, and what answer he should make her. "She called you, 'Lord king,'" said the interpreter, "and offered to drink your health. Your answer to her must be, 'Drinc heil!'" Vortigern accordingly answered, "Drinc heil!" and bade her drink; after which he took the cup from her hand, kissed her, and drank himself. From that time to this, it has been the custom in Britain, that he who drinks to any one says, "Wacht heil!" and he that pledges him, answers "Drinc heil!"Sir Walter Scott follows this usage in Ivanhoe, where he uses knowledge of the proper response to the call to establish Richard the Lionheart's familiarity with the Saxon traditions of the country over which he, as a Norman, rules. Scott's suggestion that Richard might have known the story is well-founded. Geoffrey was Welsh, but his history was written in large part to benefit Norman claims to the English throne. He wrote it around 1136; it was translated into Norman verse in 1155, two years before Richard was born. It's highly likely that Richard would have known the story.
Yet of course the story might be wrong -- much else is in Geoffrey's history. On the other hand, Geoffrey got the phrase from somewhere. He wasn't living in the Old Danelaw, but in Wales. He claimed his sources were originally from the Welsh language, and probably some of them were. So perhaps this part of his history is right, and the OED is wrong: perhaps the phrase is original Old English, and not a Danish addition to the language.