Here we come a-wassailing
by William D. Trego
As far back as I can find (in recorded history), drinks and good cheer have always been central to Christmas celebrations. Geoffrey Chaucer, in “The Franklin’s Tale,” describes a lively Christmas feast of wine, a wild boar (on the table), and hearty cries of “Noël” — all in three short lines. In fact, during the Anglo-Norman period of British history (after the invasion led by William of Normandy in 1066), an entire catalogue of Christmas drinking songs and carols were recorded by various scribes and assembled for the record.
All were intended for communal singing and were largely in the deep spirit of sincere fellowship. These songs and carols celebrate many things: the ceremonial arrival of the boar’s head on a platter (apparently quite a dramatic moment); the conclusion of yet another (hopefully productive) year of agriculture; the resolute refusal to become disheartened or despondent by the dark, nasty winter weather; and the girding, uplifting effect of friends and neighbors on the larger community spirit. And, yes, religious faith worked its way into these as well.
Here’s a very early one from the early 14th Century:
Lords by Christmas and the Host of this mansion hear my toast.
Drink it well — Each must drain his cup of wine, and I the first will toss off mine;
Thus I advise.
Here then I bid you all Wassail, Cursed be who will not say, Drinkhail.
“Wassail” is equivalent to “to your health,” and “Drinkhail” would be the response to this, something akin to “hear, hear!” So, from very early times, everyone was encouraged, in fact, expected — to participate, to join in the seasonal festivities, to raise a glass with neighbors, to acknowledge their shared membership in a common society. It is the exaltation of life itself, life on this planet.
And, it is clear, there is universal distaste — really deep distrust — of all who stand apart, stand aloof, those who don’t join in, those who keep their distance. For the ultimate strength of any group of settlers, farmers, pilgrims — or modern-day business executives for that matter — is in its formation into a unified, formidable front with common goals.
So, now with the holidays approaching, the sharp, piquant lesson is: Don’t be a deadbeat!
Loosen up. Enjoy the season and enjoy your neighbors and friends. But please, don’t confuse any of this with the abuse of alcohol. And let’s be acutely cognizant of our ancient (Anglo-Saxon and Celtic) Christmas traditions and rituals; they were developed over many, many centuries. And, while we’re at it, let’s give a toast to all of our forebears — the season certainly demands it. And, now that we’re all assembled here in 2008, there is no better time to celebrate.
And what shall we pour? Consider the enormous number of new specialty beers and ales readily available: from lagers to pilsners to bochs to stouts. Just go look. The variety of single-malt Scotch is also dizzying; seemingly every town with a creek or small river in Scotland distills and bottles its own. And we all know how the wine world has just exploded in recent years with an unending variety of oenological pleasures and tastes. But don’t stop there. There’s great stemware and other drinking vessels to buy, elegant candles and tablecloths, interesting nosh and finger food, and more forms and venues of great music than anyone could have ever imagined — all kinds of accoutrements to a fine, memorable and (hopefully moving) evening — an evening with family and friends, and all in high charitable spirits.
So, if you find yourself this year a host or hostess, a houseguest, or a casual drop-by, don’t be shy, join in the great human celebration — and participate — acknowledge the sacred privilege it is to be here. NJC
William D. Trego is a writer and the publisher of fly-fishing books at Meadow Run Press in Far Hills.