Wassail is found in Middle-English texts in reference to ceremonial drinking of alcoholic beverges.
The name drives from the custom of saying ves heill (‘be hail, be healthy’) at such drinking bouts. The form of the words are Old Norse, apparently indicating a custom brought into England by the Danes. The corresponding pure Old English expression was the one used in greeting another person: wes þū hāl! (‘be thou healthy!’). It is not known if this Old English expression was also used at drinking ceremonies.
In normal gatherings, the leader of the company assembled took the bowl and said “Wassail!” Then the company said “Drink hail!" The leader passed the bowl to another person with a kiss, and each guest repeated the actions. The practice survived into the Renaissance.
Geoffrey’s explanation that this custom was introduced into Britain by its use when
Vortigern first met Renwein is dubious. It seems to be presented as common Anglic usage, in which case, considering that Hengist’s Saxons have been in Britain for years, it would hardly be a new usage.
Nellie Slayton Aurner (1921, p. 51) notes some mention of the Vortigern account of the origin of wassailing, first from the Annalium Phrisicorum Libri Tres of Bernardus Furmerius. Aurner states:
That Hengest was a Frisian he considers proved by the fact of the wassail custom. The habit of presenting the bowl with a kiss as Rowena did is, he claims, a custom found only in England and his own country. This fact with the close likeness of language he regards as proof that the invaders of England were at least partly Frisian. The same point is stressed by Pierius Winsemius, historiographer to the states of Friesland in 1622 who stated that “the pleasant custom of kissing was utterly impractical and unknown in England until the fair Princess Ronix, the daughter of King Hengist of Friesland pressed the beaker with her lipkins (little lips)) and saluted the amorous Vortigern with a kusjen, according to the practice of our (Frisick) nation.”,
- Doares, Robert (Dec., 2006) “Wassailing Through History”, Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Williamsburg, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
- Aurner, Nellie Slayter. (1921) Hengest: A Study in Early English Hero Legend, University of Iowa: Humanistic Studies, Vol. II, No. 1, Iowa City, University of Iowa.
LATIN: Waht heil; FRENCH: Weshel, guersil ; ENGLISH: wæs hail, wassail; WELSH: wassail.