WASSAIL (O. Eng. was hdl, " be whole," " be well "), primarily the ancient form of " toasting," the term being applied later to the Christmas feasting and revelries and particularly to the bowl of spiced ale or wine which was a feature of the medieval Christmas. One of the earliest references to the wassail-bowl in English history is in the description of the reception of King Vortigern by Hengist, when Rowena " came into the king's presence, with a cup of gold filled with wine in her hand, and making a low reverence unto the king said, ' Waes hael hlaford Cyning,' which is ' Be of health, Lord King.' " In a collection of ordinances for the regulations of the royal household in Henry VII. 's reign, the steward on Twelfth Night was to cry " wassail " three times on entering with the bowl, the royal chaplain responding with a song. Wassailing was as much a custom in the monasteries as in laymen's houses, the bowl being known as poculum Caritalis. What was popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as " the vessel cup," and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. This cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols. In Devonshire and elsewhere it was the custom to wassail the orchards on Christmas and New Year's eve. Pitchers of ale or cider were poured over the roots of the trees to the accompaniment of a rhyming toast to their healths.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)