Wassailing was an old country tradition that took place on Twelfth Night or "Old Christmas Eve," especially in areas where cider apples were grown. Right before dark that wassail (spiced ale or hard cider topped with roasted apples) would be prepared and ladled into the special wassail bowl (similar to a punch bowl with handles). The village would gather at the orchard after dark with the wassail on hand and proceed to bang pots, shoot off guns, and make a racket to frighten away any evil spirits that could still be lurking about on this last night of Christmas. This commotion would also help to begin to "wake up" the trees from their winter hibernation. The trees were blessed with thanks and urged with rhyming chants to produce an even better crop in the new year. The oldest, most venerable tree's health would be "toasted" with a piece of wassail-soaked bread or cake placed in its branches.
If wassail was left over after regaling the trees, then the ceremonies would conclude with the villagers quenching their own thirst before returning home. In some areas, the young people would go from house to house in the village, singing wassail songs and receiving small gifts or treats in return.
Wassail is an old Middle English contraction of waes hael, meaning "be health" or "be whole," that was derived from the old Norse ves heill "to be healthy." The reply to waes hael was drinc hael, or "drink and be healthy." The modern expression "hale and hearty" shares the same roots.