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Here We Go…Wasailling!

Image shows a bulletin printed around 1820 in Birmingham for two Christmas carols (this would be something a church might hand out and carolers carry with them).The origins of caroling date far back in time, with the word ‘carol’ dating back to the Old French and the 1300s, meaning a ‘joyful song’ or to ‘dance in a ring accompanied by singers’. In ancient times, celebrations often included song and dancer, with May carols and harvest carols existing, and perhaps others we have lost. The idea of attaching songs to Christmas in terms of celebration is credited to Saint Francis of Assisi, who in the 1200s created nativity scenes with hymns and everyone invited to sing along. This idea spread throughout the 1300s, and the Anglo-Saxon toast of ‘waes hael’ (be well) gives us ‘wassailing.

Wassailers—usually those without much in a village—would serenade the better-off locals in the great and good houses who were likely to offer up food and drink, and perhaps a few coins at Christmastime. A candle in a window noted a house willing to entertain wassailers. It was considered bad luck not to reward the efforts of these traveling entertainers with food and drink, including a ‘figgy pudding’ (figgy simply means any dried fruit, and this would also be known as a plum pudding, and then as a Christmas pudding).

The Oxford Dictionary notes that one of the oldest printed carols is the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’, dating to 1521 and traditionally sung at Queen’s College, Oxford while Christmas lunch is served. In 1522, King Henry VIII published music and words for a carol called ‘Green Groweth the Holly’ (perhaps inspired by the song, ‘The Holy and the Ivy’). As with many early carols, these songs had roots in earlier pagan celebrations of Winter Solstice. The Tudors in particular enjoyed both wassailing and mummers. Twelfth Night was also a time for wassailing and mummers might arrive to offer up entertainment, usually in the form of a play with St. George, the dragon he slays, the Turkish knight, and others. Mummers might also ‘pass the hat’ for a few coins.

Wassailing celebrations could also extend to the ‘Old Twelvey’ (January 17, the date of the old Julian calendar, which was revised in 1752). The older wassailing might involve blessing the apple tress, an ancient tradition in cider-producing areas such as Devon, Kent, Herefordshire, Somerset, and Sussex.

In 1644, Oliver Cromwell outlawed public caroling, along with figgy puddings and all other ‘Popish’ Christmas celebrations, but they came back with the Restoration, which did away with all legislation passed in England between 1642 and 1660.

By the Georgian era—and the English Regency—Christmas celebrations began on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, with an exchange of gifts, and went on until Twelfth Night. While attending church service was common for many on Christmas, the idea of songs, games, feasting and fun carried throughout the Christmas celebrations.

William Holland, a parson who kept a diary from 1799 to 1818, wrote of December 25, 1799, “Cold, clear and frosty. Christmas Day, Sacrament Day at my church. Went to Aisholt in the afternoon, returned to a late dinner by myself on spratts and a fine woodcock. The kitchen was tolerably well lined with my poor neighbours, workmen &cc. Many of them staid till past ten o’clock and sang very melodiously. Sent half a crown to our Church Musicians who had serenaded the Family this cold morning at five o’clock.” (Quoted from Paupers and Pig Killers, his published diary.) Holland uses the more contemporary term—for him—of ‘musicians’,

What might these musicians or wassailers sing?

The English carol ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ dates to the 1500s, and was included in the book, Christmas with the Poets, which gives these words for a wassailing song: “Here’s to thee, old apple tree, Whence thou may’st bud, and though may’st blow! And whence though may’st bear apples enow! Hats full! Craps full! Bushel – bushel – sacks full! And my pockets full too!”

Another older carol is ‘I Saw Three Ships’, with multiple versions existing, depending on the location of the singers. ‘Deck the Halls’ comes from a Welsh song, ‘Nos Galan’. Translated from the Welsh, it has less to do with halls and more to do with love, “Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom, fal lal lal lal lal lal la. Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la. Oh! how blessed are the blisses, Words of love, and mutual kisses, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la.”

‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen’ dates to the 1500s, again with different words and music, all localized in England. The version most familiar to modern ears dates to the 1650s when it is printed in a book of dancing tunes. It became more popular as a Christmas carol in the Victorian era, which is true for many of the songs we know today. ‘Silent Night’ was first performed in Oberndorf, Austria as ‘Stille Nacht’ with words written in 1816 by Father Joseph Mohr and music added in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber. It would not appear in English until 1863. The music and lyrics of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ (‘Adeste Fideles’) dates to France and the early 1700s. The first published version shows up in 1760 and is translated into English in 1841. ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night’, a poem by Nahum Tate, was published in Tate and Brady’s Psalter in 1702. The music is by George Frederick Handel, written in 1728, and arranged for the carol in 1812.

Charles Wesley, who wrote over 6,500 hymns, published the words for ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ (noting it should have solemn music) in 1739 in Hymns and Sacred Poems. (His opening couplet was, “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings” with welkin meaning the sky or heaven.) In 1752, George Whitfield modified the lyrics, but the tune we know comes from Felix Mendohlsson’s 1840 ‘Vaterland, in deinen Gauen’, which was adapted to fit the Christmas carol by William Cummings.

In 1822, Davies Gilbert published Some Ancient Christmas Carols and wrote: The Editor is desirous of preserving them in their actual forms…He is anxious also to preserve them on account of the delight they afforded him in his childhood, when the festivities of Christmas Eve were anticipated by many days of preparation, and prolonged through several weeks by repetitions and remembrances.” Gilbert often lists the tunes as simply Carol I, Carol II, and so on, but he includes music as well as lyrics, such as “Hark! Hark! What news the Angels bring, Glad tidings of a new-born king.”

William Sandys, an English solicitor and a Society of Antiquaries of London fellow, published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833. His book included ‘The First Noel’.

Handel’s Messiah oratorio, which includes the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, was originally written for Easter performances. The first London performance was at the Theater Royal, Covent Garden on March 23, 1742. It became a regular performance there and in Bath, with the first performance in Bath on November 24, 1756. Performances in Bath often occurred either in December or around Easter, often in the New Assembly Rooms, but also in churches and other locations. It is noted as being performed for many years on Christmas Eve at the Assembly Room. The book, The Bath Messiah goes into detail about how the Herschels—William and his sister Caroline—arranged performances in Bath (she sang, and their brother played cello) in the late 1700s, before William became more interested in astronomy. Christmas Eve Messiah performances date to Venanzio Rauzzi who organized performances from 1781 to 1800, and the Bath Choral Society, which started up in 1819.

Finally, instead of song, if one was in town (London), there was always the Christmas pantomime, which opened on Boxing Day, where the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi performed at Drury Lane, or Astley’s Amphitheater offered a special Christmas spectacular.

For more information:
Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern can be found online at: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Christmas_Carols_Ancient_and_Modern/x2VKAAAAIAAJ?hl=en
Some Ancient Christmas Carols can be found online at: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Some_Ancient_Christmas_Carols/u0dGAAAAYAAJ?hl=en

Article by Shannon Donnelly for The Quizzing Glass blog and The Regency Reader.

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