TWELVE DEGREES OF INEBRIATION A month by month guide to getting drunk.

A wassail is a medieval cheer, a bit like a toast, usually to the good health of someone or something. It involves raising one’s glass/goblet/tankard, shouting “wassail!”, and then drinking the contents of said glass/goblet/tankard. Following is a brief description of twelve times per year* when it is traditionally appropriate/required to wassail.

January – Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night (also called Epiphany Eve), is the time for ‘Wassailing the Trees’. This salute is said to assure the triumph of Spring over Winter. Wassailing fruit trees in particular will bring a bountiful harvest. So the more wassailing, the greater the Spring.

FebruarySt Valentine’s Day
The time to celebrate love. At Valentine’s Day feasts, a wassail is performed at the High Table. There are then wassails to a large tankard (the Valentine Cup). This is drinking to the Spirit of Love, so the more wassailing, the greater the love.

Medieval Easter lasts for 120 days, and celebrates the triumph of Spring over Winter (which was assured by all that wassailing in January). This means seventeen weeks of feasting, festivals, and more importantly, seventeen weeks of wassailing. Each day of the celebration brings the obligation to wassail the miracle of the new day. So the more wassailing, the greater the triumph.

AprilAll Fool’s Day
All Fool’s Day is when the world is turned upside-down. Everything is topsy-turvy, which brings hilarity and merriment. The Lord of Misrule (usually the Court Jester) presides over the High Table, and all announcements are said backwards. Of course, this is made all the more hilarious after a few wassails. The more wassailing, the greater the merriment.

Mayday is said to be a rememberance of pagan rituals to force Spring to return to the world. There are many traditions observed including May horns, May whistles, May bells, the Maypole and the Queen of May. Each of these traditions present an opportunity to wassail the coming of Spring. (Again).

JuneMidsummer Eve
Midsummer is actually celebrated at the beginning of Summer. (I’m not sure why it’s called Midsummer – perhaps too much wassailing at Mayday). At a Midsummer feast, the usual welcome wassail is performed,then food is served. Then it is time to toast and rejoice in the cuckoo bird. (Again, there seems to be no explanation as to why, but who cares?) The rejoicing is, of course, much livlier after the wassailing of the cuckoo. The more wassails, the greater the cuckoo. (? I’m really lost on this one.)

JulySt Swithin’s Day
St. Swithin’s Day is about celebrating the Summer season. In England, if it rains on this day, it is said to predict rain for 40 days thereafter. This is important for two reasons: One, it will ensure that the season’s fruit will be the most lucsious and Two, it allows more time to be indoors wassailing Summer’s abundance of fruits and vegetables. The more wassailing, the greater the fruit.

AugustLammas Day
August is the month for bread. It is baked in different shapes and colours. Lammas means ‘Loaf Mass’ and the day offers thanks for a good harvest. A favourite Lammas Day drink is Lamb’s Wool which is cider, beer or wine with baked apples floating on top. Naturally, the more wassailing the greater the thanks for the Summer.

There are a number of stories about how this holiday originated. Most of them seem to be based around the eating, producing or selling of ginger. There is no ‘official’ wassailing session for Michaemas, however the day does mark the beginning of Michaelmas Fair, so it would seem appropriate to drink to the general good will of the season. The more wassailing, the greater the fair.

Halloween marks the end of the year on the pagan Celtic calendar. It is thought to be the time when supernatural beings are at their most powerful. Flames are believed to welcome good spirits and repel evil ones, so many candle are lit. This holiday draws on many traditions from other celebrations, so there is much wassailing to the spirits, the seasons and to love. The more wassailing, the greater the celebration.

NovemberSt Catherine’s Day
This holiday is all about Catherine Wheels. They can be in the form of a wagon wheel chandelier, a juggler twirling lit torches, circular dances or round cakes to name a few. Once again, Lamb’s Wool is the drink of choice, and many wassails are said for St Catherine who allegedly won an argument over 50 of the world’s most important scholars. The more wassailing, the more adulation for Cath.

Medieval Christmas is a 12 day celebration. During the feast, there are 3 wassails sung to the ‘Milly’ which is a box containing a statue of the Virgin and Child. And, as it is the time of twelves, the feast has at least 12 holiday foods, each guest receives 12 presents, there are 12 kisses for each celebrant, and there are 12 wassails for the good health of trees and people. The more wassailing, the greater the health.

A Word on Etiquette
After a lot of wassailing, it can become difficult to maintain an appropriate level of politeness, but at the very least, the inebriated should try to remember these wise words…
”Pick not your nose, nor that it be dropping with no pearls clear…. And always beware of thy hinder part from guns blasting.”

*These holidays originated in the Northern Hemisphere, therefore Spring begins in March, summer begins in June, etc, etc.


Medieval Holidays & Festivals
Madeleine Pelner Cosman
First published by Judy Piatkus (Publishers), Ltd. Of London 1984
Published by Bookcraft Ltd., Midsomer Norton 1996

The Yorkist Age
Paul Murray Kendall
First published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1962
Published by Penguin Books, London 2001