Rebecca Williams Published

Wassailing Helps Singers In Asheville Connect To Ancestral Roots

Carolers gathering on a porch in the evening. White Christmas lights are seen all around.
Wassailers gather on a porch in the Montford neighborhood of Asheville, North Carolina in December 2022. It was customary in England and Wales for wassailers to be offered food and drink in exchange for singing.
Rebecca Williams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story originally aired in the Dec. 24, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

A Holiday Custom With English Roots

On a cold December night in Asheville, North Carolina, a group of about 20 people gather on a stranger’s front porch. Some of them have come together for the past decade to celebrate the holidays, build community, and, most important, wassail.

One of the wassailers knocks on the door. A woman opens it. “We’re wassailers and we would like to sing you songs,” said the leader of the wassailing group. “I’d be delighted,” the homeowner replies. The group burst into laughter and began to sing “Apple Tree Wassail” in four part harmony.

O lily-white lily, O lily-white pin,
Please to come down and let us come in.
Lily-white lily, O lily-white smock,
Please to come down and pull back the lock.
(It’s) our Wassa-ail jolly wassail
Joy come to our jolly wassail

Apple Tree Wassail, Traditional, England
Saro Lynch-Thomason leads the Asheville group. At 36 years old, Lynch-Thomason wears her dark hair short on one side and long on the other. She sports a bright red scarf and a cluster of bells that ring when she walks. She explains that wassailing is a centuries-old tradition with English roots.

“The term ‘wassail’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon phrase that meant good health, so it was a toast to good health,” Lynch-Thomason said. “Wassail itself was a drink, usually made from ale and cooked apples and a lot of spices that would be served in households, often around Twelfth Night or Christmastime or New Year’s. And coincided with a tradition in the Middle Ages of working class folk, peasants, going to the homes of the wealthy and having this customary charitable exchange, where the working people are singing to and blessing the wealthy master and mistress of the house. And in exchange, they’re being gifted food, they’re being gifted cider and wassail. And they’re often being gifted money, as well.”

Good health to your house, may riches come soon,
Bring us some cider, we’ll drink down the moon.
It’s Our Wassa-ail jolly wassail
Joy come to our jolly wassail 

Apple Tree Wassail, Traditional, England

The Asheville wassailers do not ask for money, but after singing at a house decorated with bright holiday lights, they ask for another gift. 

As you heard in the last song, we did ask for alcohol several times,” Lynch-Thomason said. 

The wassailers laugh, and the homeowner asks, “Do you want alcohol?” 

“You guys have some cups. I can see that,” another household member observes.

Wassailing is not your typical round of Christmas caroling. It is more mischievous. And that is something that the Asheville group takes very seriously.

This was a really fun and rowdy tradition,” Lynch-Thomason said. “And it eventually got displaced by caroling in the Victorian era. It was considered kind of too rambunctious by the emerging culture. And so, the spirit of what we’re trying to return to is that kind of raucous, fun feeling of these strangers with a party showing up at your door.”

There was an old farmer and he had an old cow
But how to milk her he didn’t know how.
He put his old cow down in his old barn,
And a little more liquor won’t do us no harm.
Harm me boys harm, harm me boys harm.

Apple Tree Wassail, Traditional, England

In fact, wassailing developed such a bad reputation for public drunkenness, it was banned by the Puritans in England and was highly discouraged by religious leaders who settled in the United States. But recently, the tradition has had a renaissance — in both England and America. 

Two carolers sing at night. They look happy and are bundled up in coats, scarves, and hats to keep warm.
Wassailers sing outside a home in Asheville, North Carolina. Traditionally, wassailers not only sang for their neighbors, but also sang in apple orchards to ensure a good harvest for the coming year.

Credit: Rebecca Williams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

One wassailer, Leila Weinstein, has been with the group for about five years. She explains what draws her to this tradition. I love the old songs. I love ballads. I love all the medieval imagery,” Weinstein said. “And then just the comradery of singing together, and you know, lighting up the night with some song.” 

For Caleb Magoon, wassailing is an excuse for a really good time. And it is a way of connecting to others. It’s just getting together with people every year that you might not see otherwise, you know. And having a fun time being silly,” Magoon said.

But members of the Asheville group are not only drawn to wassailing because of the rowdy good time and the sense of community. For participants like Erin Gahan Clark, it is also a way to connect with the traditions of their ancestors. 

“I think that for me, like I was raised in the Catholic faith and so I always knew about Christmas caroling,” Gahan Clark said. “But I feel like these songs, that are older, are connecting me to my well ancestors and like more ancient roots. And I just dig it. It feels good in my body.”

Wassailing As Connection To Ethnic Identity

Most of the wassailers in Asheville are white. And wassailing seems to help them connect to their ancestral traditions and ethnic identity. For Lynch-Thomason and many of her white peers, they feel disconnected from a sense of ethnic identity. And she said that here in the United States, that is by design.

“There’s been a long and very purposeful project of making people white here. Of having people forget their ancestral identities and becoming white as a way to create racial hierarchies and reinforce white supremacy,” Lynch-Thomason said. “When you came off the boat, you know at whatever period, there was a project here of making you become white, and forget your ancestral languages and traditions. And so today, white folks in this country are experiencing a lot of grief and have a lot of yearning for ancestral practices.”

Lynch-Thomason has experienced this grief of ethnic ambiguity firsthand. And when she was in her mid-20s, she decided to learn about the traditions of her ancestors. 

“In my case, I have ancestors from England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Scandinavia, kind of all over the place. And there are several hundreds of years of separation from any of the traditions from those places. So I’ve sought out and learned from other people, English folk songs, Scottish ballads,” she said. 

Lynch-Thomason said that connecting with these English and Scottish folk songs has had a big impact.

Wassail wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made: Of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee

Gloucestershire Wassail, Traditional, Gloucestershire, England, Lyrics published Oxford Book of Carols, 1928

There’s something really powerful to me about speaking words and singing songs, holding those vibrations, those words, those forms of knowledge in my body,” Lynch-Thomason said.And knowing that people in my ancestry also sang these songs and held these words.”

Six adults stand together holding sheet music. They are singing.
Saro Lynch-Thomason (third from left) leads the wassailers in rehearsal. One of the songs the group performed, the “Boar’s Head Carol” was first published in 1521.

Credit: Rebecca Williams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The boar’s head as I understand
Is the rarest dish in all this land
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico (‘let us serve with a song’)

Boar’s Head Carol, Queens College version, Oxford, England, first published 1521

It is not always easy to learn songs and rituals that haven’t been passed down from generation to generation. There are challenges to singing a 700-year-old song.

During a rehearsal at Lynch-Thomason’s parents’ house in Asheville, the wassailing group struggles with Latin pronunciations.

“‘Servire’… I’m sure this is wrong. ‘Let us servire…’” Lynch-Thomason said to the group. “I’m changing this as I do it. ‘Let us servire cantico.’” 

The wassailers repeat the phrase in unison, sounding unsure of their pronunciation. 

“That’s some Lat-English right there,” declares Magoon.

It is messy trying to reconfigure a 15th century English tradition for 21st century Asheville. But Lynch-Thomason said it is important that white folks make the effort to learn about their ethnic identities and the practices of their ancestors.

“When we aren’t able to connect to those practices, we end up appropriating and attaching to other cultures, indigenous cultures, and African American cultures,” Lynch-Thomason said. “And it’s really important to understand that in Indigenous history here, and in African American history, song and dance traditions, and many spiritual traditions were illegal for a very, very long time. We have to think about how painful that is for white folks to then be trying to borrow or utilize those traditions without much context for them. When we as white people actually have those traditions in our ancestry that we can be seeking out in a healthier way.”

A Toast To The New Year

Old Christmas is past
Twelfth Night is the last
And we bid you adieu
great joy to the new

Please to See the King, Traditional, Pembrokeshire, South Wales

Back on the porch, as the group finishes singing, one of the people in the house returns with a bottle of wine. One of the wassailers slips on a costume that looks like it was made out of red and blue rags. She wears a wreath on her head that is wrapped in fake ivy, with battery-operated candles on top — a sure cue that we’re no longer in the Middle Ages.

The wassailers begin to stomp and sing. 

A person is dressed up on a porch. A woman opens a bottle of cider.
The ‘Spirit of the New Year’ toasts a household member while Saro Lynch-Thomason opens a bottle of cider. The ‘Spirit’s’ costume was modeled on a traditional mumming costume from the British Isles, which featured torn strips of fabric on the sleeves and legs.

Credit: Rebecca Williams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Spirit of Earth and Light, traveling through this winter night 
Will you bless those here with fortune in the coming year?

Spirit of Earth and Light, Lynch-Thomason, 2016, Asheville, NC

The Spirit of the New Year emerges from behind the singers and dances up to the owners of the house to make a toast. She tips her glass against the bottle of wine and people cheer.  

“Did everyone get wine?” asks the woman in the house.

The wassailers shout goodbyes and thank yous as they leave the porch, their voices fading as they walk away.  

“I just think we so badly need community. And there are so many ways that our current culture divides us from each other. And isolates us from each other. And when you get people together to sing together, something really, really powerful happens for us.  And it happens in our bones, it happens at like this molecular level. And we need it,” Lynch-Thomason said. “And so to create that with a group of people, and then bring that as a gift to others, to say, even if you’re feeling isolated in your home or isolated in your community, we show up and we sing to you. That’s a powerful gift.”

We have traveled many miles
Over hedges and stiles
In search of our king
Unto you we bring

Please to See the King, Traditional, Pembrokeshire, South Wales


This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.