Columns > Published on December 17th, 2013

Wassailing with Wenceslas - Christmas Carol Origins

We all know the words, but what do they really mean? Here I explain the origins of a few holiday song lyrics that have always baffled me. To start with, though, what is a "carol" to being with?

What is a “carol”?

According to Merriam-Webster, the word comes from the Greek word choraulēs, which is a combination of the words choros (chorus) and aulein (to play a reed instrument). The word evolved to mean singing while dancing in a round formation, and finally, by the 14th century, it was regularly used to refer to songs sung during certain seasons and religious celebrations.

Although the idea of singing songs to celebrate a winter holiday is pre-Christian, the early Roman Christians did use the idea in their own celebrations.  The earliest indication of a song sung for the observance of Christmas appears in AD 129 when a Roman Bishop called for the song “Angels Hymn” to be sung at the Christmas service.

Over the next several hundred years, many Christmas songs were written, but they were mostly written in Latin, so they didn’t exactly take off in popularity among the lay-people. That changed in AD 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi started producing Nativity Plays in Italy. The plays featured songs sung in the native language so the audience could understand them. It was then that the carols started to spread to other countries via traveling musicians who often adapted the songs for the local population where they were performing.

Even when the Protestant reformation of the mid 1600s put the kibosh on celebrating Christmas by singing and having flashy celebrations, people kept the carols alive, singing them in secret.  By the Victorian era in England, Christmas was back in fashion, and most of the carols we know today were written or put to music during the 1800s.

What about carol-ing?

Do you hate it when you're just minding your own business and a group of overly cheerful people come knocking on your door just to sing you some silly songs while you freeze your ass off and try to keep a fake smile plastered on your face? You’re not alone, apparently.

In 17th century England, the streets were often patrolled at night by watchmen or waitmen who trumpeted or played pipes a few times a night to let criminals know there were people keeping an eye on things while the townspeople slept.  Later, those bands of waitmen evolved into groups of musicians who were paid by the municipality to play music for processions and celebrations—the biggest, of course, being Christmas. In the early 1800s, however, these Waits (as they were called) were put out of work because the municipalities had to cut out extraneous expenses.

At that point, unpaid musicians would still wander and play music in the hopes that people would pay them for their services. They did this most often at Christmas because it was a time of celebration, and people might be feeling charitable. They also did it at night, often well after people were asleep. As you can imagine, they were not popular with everyone, and there are many recorded complaints. A London footman named William Tayler wrote this about the Waits in his diary entry of December 26, 1837:

These are a set of men that goe about the streets playing musick in the night after people are in bed and a sleepe. Some people are very fond of hearing them, but for my own part, I don’t admire being aroused from a sound sleep by a whole band of musick and perhaps not get to sleep again for an houre or two.

Considering this, you can see how unlikely it was that these musicians were paid for their services, and so they evolved into the less maligned carol singers. These merry bands of singers parade through town singing songs from door-to-door in exchange for a simple thank you or maybe some hot chocolate and cookies. And they usually call it quits before it gets too late, thankyouverymuch. I think the invention of shotguns may have helped that.

What does it mean to go “wassailing”?

In the days of the Saxons, you might greet someone by saying was hail, which meant to be in good health. Later, the greeting became a toast in which was hail was replied to with drinc hail, or drink health. The modern words hail (as in greet) and health are both derived from this word. Later the phrase became associated with the drink itself, a spiced cider or wine served during the winter holidays. On Twelfth Night, in particular, some British groups toasted the good health and continued productivity of the physical apple trees by leaving pieces of bread soaked in cider in the crooks of the trees and shooting off guns to ward off evil spirits. (And you thought kissing under mistletoe was a weird tradition…) They would also sing songs like this one:

Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to th'old apple tree
Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear.

The term wassail is derived from the word for the spiced drink, and it can mean the literal drink, the cup the drink is in, and the  caroling and carousing that come after you’ve have a few wassails of wassail. In the classic Christmas Carol Here we come a-wassailing, the concepts of singing for money, drinking, and wishing people good health all come up. See for yourself in this version from the New Oxford Book of Carols:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.

REFRAIN:
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a

Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours' children,
Whom you have seen before.

REFRAIN

Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.

REFRAIN

We have got a little purse
Of stretching leather skin;
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.
Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf.

REFRAIN

God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.

REFRAIN

Good master and good mistress,
While you're sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.

Good King What’s-his-name

The story of the “Good King” is based on the historical figure of Wenceslas, a Duke who ruled Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the very early 900s. Wenceslas’ father died when he was only 12, and his pagan (GASP) mother ruled in his stead until he turned 18. During those years, Wenceslas’ grandmother raised him as a Christian. She smuggled priests in at night to teach him the Bible and how to read and write—which was pretty rare even for a royal. When he turned 18 and assumed his title, he banished his mother and her pagan followers. He put in an education system and defended his dukedom successfully from invasions.

However, when he was 22, he was stabbed and killed on his way to celebrate a saint’s day at the church as part of a plot by his brother and mother. He had been a popular enough ruler that he was considered a martyr and a saint almost immediately, and cults of Wenceslas sprang up in England and Bohemia shortly after his death. One very popular (although likely fictional) story of the king involved him walking barefoot, with only a single servant to assist him, around town giving alms to the poor. Supposedly, he famously went out into the snow with his servant to offer food to a poor man he saw from his window during the Feast of St. Stephen. (The Feast of St. Stephen is the second day of Christmas, or December 26th—now known better as Boxing Day, the day on which you box up your leftovers and give them to the poor—not punch out your neighbors, as most Americans assume…I know I did….)

This is the story that was written into a poem by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda. In 1853, Englishman John Mason Neale translated the poem into English and put the words to the tune of the 13th century folksong called "Tempus adest floridum" ("It is time for flowering"). And we’ve been singing about it ever since.

Figgy Pudding

As an American, the word “pudding” conjures up images of slimy, brown custard in tiny cups, possibly accompanied by Bill Cosby’s voice and the greasy smells of an elementary school cafeteria. In a word—gross. Add figs to the equation, and I’m pretty much running the other way.

Figgy pudding, however, has none of those things. Many Americans would be surprised (I was) to learn that pudding is a soufflé-like bread-based dessert, and figgy pudding is a steamed concoction of nuts and fruits bathed generously in brandy. As a holiday dessert, the pudding goes back to at least the 1600s when it was banned by the Protestants. It still lives on as a Christmas tradition in the UK, although a 2007 magazine survey showed 30% of responders wouldn’t eat it.

While making it, everyone is supposed to help stir it, making a wish at each turn of the spoon. In some cases, you can stir in a small item (but not too small—choking hazard!) for someone to find for good luck. It’s usually served in a bundt-cake like shape, and when served, you light it on fire! And did I mention it’s chock-a-block with booze? What’s not to like about that?

Yuletide Trolls

In case you were wondering, they do not live under festively decorated bridges. The verb “to troll” comes from Middle English word meaning “to walk or wander.” It also meant to move in a circular motion, to circulate a drink, or to sing in a round. Troll can also mean to “to sing in a full, rolling voice.” Clearly, in the case of Deck the Halls, the meaning is closer to this last two I mentioned.  However, the fact that carols were often sung by bands of trolling wassailed Waits (see above), the other meanings might also be appropriate. I have also seen the lyric written as “toll the ancient yuletide carol”, but from what I can find, that’s a typo or misguided modernization.

Old Lame Song?

“Auld Lang Syne” is sung often at New Year’s celebrations, but also at funerals, graduations, and other celebrations of endings.  It’s well known to be a very old song, but Scottish Poet Robert Burns is the first to be credited as having published the song lyrics to the tune of an old folk song in 1788. However, even he admits that he “took it down from an old man.” A similar poem, published in 1711 by James Watson is almost identical, and shows that they probably got it from the same old folk song that’s been around for who-knows-how-long.

The phrase “for auld lang syne” can be translated literally as “for old long since” or colloquially to mean “for old times’ sake.” Like many holiday songs, it’s about drinking with your friends and reminiscing about the good ‘ol days.

The original Burns’ version goes like this:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne* ?

CHORUS:

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

CHORUS

And there’s a hand my trusty friend !
And give me a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

Happy Holidays

So get out your wassails and fill ‘em full to the brim with a boozy cider. Gather your most obnoxious friends together and get them completely wassailed. Then troll through the neighborhood late at night caroling at the top of your lungs. Head over to the manor of nice, old Mr. Wenceslas, who answers the door barefoot and smiling. Maybe he’ll invite you and your wasted Waits inside for another sip of kindness and slice of flaming figgy pudding, for auld lang syne.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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