Ever Wondering How Christmas Caroling Began? It's Kinda Messed Up
(Posted this blog last year. So if it looks familiar, it is.)
Everybody hates a pessimist so without trying to be a Debbie Downer and shitting all over a joyous holiday tradition, let's take a look at the fucked up origin story of how Christmas caroling came to be through a historical context.
For background purposes, it's important to know that the Christmas holiday used to be downright miserable. Unless you were in the 1%.
For the other 99%, Christmas was a stark reminder of the differences between the haves and the have-nots.
Salon- In the pre-modern era, once the fall harvest and slaughter season had been completed agricultural workers found themselves with time on their hands and a bountiful supply of fermented beverages. Rowdy celebrations were one result. An antiauthoritarian strain ran through these winter rituals. The Christmas season was a time of what the early-20th-century literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin described as the spirit of carnival. A master of revels, called the Lord of Misrule, might be appointed or selected by chance (for example, by discovering a bean hidden in a cake) to govern over festivities in which the high and low exchanged places. At this time the wealthy were expected to provide food and drink for common folk. The ritualized disorder provided a kind of annual safety valve against smoldering class resentments and grievances.
The king of England, James I, was concerned that such developments as sprawling urbanization and the disturbing outspokenness of women were eroding traditional values. He commissioned his chief propagandist, the playwright and poet Ben Jonson, to create a performance called "Christmas, His Masque," to be presented around Christmas Day, 1616. This play would mark the first literary appearance of the prototype of Santa Claus, called Father Christmas. Jonson described him as “attir’d in round Hose, long Stockings, a close Doublet, a high crownd Hat with a Broach, a long thin beard, a Truncheon, little Ruffes, white Shoes, his Scarffes, and Garters tyed crosse, and his Drum beaten before him.”
So as with everything back in the day, the rich and powerful always had to find a way to distract or calm the masses, so that they could continue to be rich and powerful and avoid an uprising.
"Christmas, His Masque" was intended to encourage people to resist the enticements and corruptions of modernity and return to traditional values in the hope of restoring the more stable social order of earlier times. At the same time, it sought to check the growing influence of religious hard-liners such as the Puritans, who opposed the celebration of Christmas. In this it failed—within a generation the monarchy would be overthrown, to be replaced by the religious extremists.
The Puritans were a really lame bunch. They hated anything even slightly resembling fun. They came to power through majority and put the kibosh on all things Christmas. Including the very popular festivity of "cross-dressing" and "role-reversal".
Among the practices they took exception to during the Christmas season festivities was cross-dressing, a vestige of ancient winter saturnalias. Role reversals were a common feature of the winter celebrations: the fool would be king for the day, peasants would temporarily command the wealthy, men and women would exchange roles. According to a minister writing in the early 1700s, Christmas mumming often involved “a changing of Clothes between Men and Women; who when dressed in each other’s habits, go from one Neighbor’s house to another … and make merry with them in disguise.”
Through this going house to house and causing a rukus, "caroling" was born.
Except it wasn't known as caroling back then.
For starters, it was strictly forbidden by the church and viewed along the same lines as "rioting, chambering (aka fornicating), and wantonness".
This general hatred of religious festival was brought by the Puritans to America on the Mayflower and no joke, "the observance of Christmas was declared a criminal offense by the Massachusetts general court in 1659".
Like any great American tradition, it was born out of rebellion.
This detestation for being forbidden from celebrating the holiday led to backlash, and "wassailing".
Wassailing was the official term for early caroling.
It literally means
"to drink plentiful amounts of alcohol and enjoy oneself with others in a noisy, lively way and go from house to house at Christmas singing carols."
As things became more and more repressed around winter and holiday season, the people turned bitter and outraged.
Christmas carolers aka wassailers, laid down the law and asserted their right to celebrate by threatening violence. So yes, believe it or not, the first "Christmas carols" were not merry and bright. They were violent and menacing.
Here is the text from one of the earliest recorded ones
We've come here to claim our right …
And if you don't open up your door,
We'll lay it flat upon the floor …
God bless the mistress and her man,
Dish and table, pot and pan:
Here's to the one with yellow hair,
She's hiding underneath the stair:
Be you maids or be you none,
Although our time may not be long,
You'll all be kissed ere we go home.
This quickly evolved in full-blown shakedowns of the rich. Bands of nomads and the lower class would form gangs that went from house to house demanding gifts of food and drink. And not just ordinary stuff. They wanted to top shelf booze and the finest cuts of meat.
The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:
We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door
But we are neighbours’ children
Whom you have seen before.
Lyrics from another early carol:
Come, butler, draw us a bowl of the best
Then we hope your soul in heaven shall rest
But if you draw us a bowl of the small
Then down will come butler, bowl, and all
If the petitioners were not let in, they would sometimes enter homes by force. On Christmas night of 1679 one landholder near Salem refused to grant the demands of such a gang of young men. His case is known through the court record it has left; it is retold in Stephen Nissenbaum’s excellent "The Battle for Christmas." After his refusal, he testified, “they threw stones, bones, and other things … They continued to throw stones for an hour and a half with little intermission. They also broke down about a pole and a half of fence, being stone wall, and a cellar, without the house, distant about four or five rods, was broken open through the door, and five or six pecks of apples were stolen.”
This was eventually quelled and turned from what was basically trick-or-treating into what became singing in exchange for charitable gifts. Instead of gangs of poor youths terrorizing the affluent and demanding fine liquor and food to stop, it became adopted by older folks, families, and groups of neighbors.
Mentalfloss- By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.
But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to "Here We Come a-Wassailing" are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.
Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.
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.
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.
p.s. - there's a group in Western England trying to bring old-school wassailing back. It is still a major part of the cider brewing season in Europe and this group thinks its important to their roots.
p.p.s.- Merry Christmas everybody!