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Carols, Wassailers, Waits and Mummers

by Julia Hickey

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without carols like God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. (Note that the carol is not aimed at "merry gentlemen," but urges gentlemen to "rest ye merry.") For many people in Britain, Christmas really begins at the moment when the carol service from King's College, Cambridge, is broadcast -- a tradition that began in 1928. The service of nine lessons and carols at King's took shape in 1918, and since 1919, even during the dark days of World War Two, the first carol has always been Once in Royal David's City.


For some, Christmas carols will be forever associated with a Salvation Army band; for others, a nativity service at school. And then of course there are assorted carol services across the country in cathedrals, churches and chapels. There is nothing quite like a cathedral carol service -- the music of the choir accompanied by soaring organ notes and the raised voices of the congregation lift the experience beyond a visit to an empty building, and the cathedral comes to life. Of course, there's also nothing quite like a Midnight Mass celebrated in a parish church. People come quietly out of the stillness of the night to celebrate Christ's birth with well loved Christmas hymns, to share friendship and exchange greetings before returning through the frosty air to their homes. It seems a ritual that has been passed from generation to generation, century after century.

And so it has -- just not in church! As late as 1435, Church Councils condemned carols as pagan practices, and the Puritans banned them along with mince pies in 1647. It took another 150 years for carols to recover. Perhaps this is not too surprising, given that one of the oldest carols, The Holly and the Ivy -- thought to be over a thousand years old -- has little to do with the nativity in its original form. Another, The Boar's Head Carol -- written during the 12th century -- clearly has even less to do with the celebration of Christ's birth and much more to do with the merrymaking from which the word carol is derived. "Carol" originally came from an old French word meaning a jolly ring dance; the song went with the dance.

Here We Come a Wassailing is about merrymaking and ensuring good fortune and a heavy apple yield for the following year. Wassail comes from an Anglo Saxon word that means good health. Groups of labourers -- wassailers -- would travel from orchard to orchard wassailing the trees to drive away evil spirits and ensure a good crop the following year. The custom is still practised in parts of Somerset, Dorset and Devon. Wassailers were, and still are, given money and a heady brew called lamb's wool that definitely gives a warm glow to the festive season! (For more information, see Here We Go A-Wassailing.)

CarolersEarly Church Fathers may have frowned upon the merry carol tunes that invited folk to dance and be happy, but ordinary people used them to celebrate Christmas with gusto. As early as 1300 groups of waits (night watchmen) were forming groups and singing and dancing their way through carols for the entertainment of their neighbours and to earn a few extra pence or flagon of ale from the gentlefolk they watched over. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen wasn't formally recorded for many centuries, but it is thought to be a 15th century waits carol.

At the start of the 18th century, the only really well known carol to find its way into the hymn book was While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, which was written during the 17th century. Gradually, though, carols were becoming respectable. The dissenting churches recognised the power of the carol as an act of celebration. Charles Wesley wrote Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and O Come All Ye Faithful was also written during this time. Even so, carol services were still relatively unusual when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 -- though the ghost of Christmas Present, with his desire for feasting, singing, dancing and general enjoyment, would undoubtedly have approved.

Times were changing! A number of Victorians wrote down the carols they heard, collections were printed, and families gathered to sing from them at Christmas. Collections of carols remain popular today -- there are some beautifully illustrated examples. Respectability was finally achieved in 1878 when the choir of Turo Cathedral sang their carols inside the cathedral rather than in the streets of the city. The story of the nativity was told in nine lessons interspaced with carols, which brings us back to the carols from King's College Cambridge, which uses the same format.

The dancing element of caroling has fared less well. Records from medieval times show that kings and commoners threw themselves into midwinter revelry with troupes of guisers or mummers providing light-hearted entertainment. A beautifully illustrated manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford shows the elaborate costumes and animal masks worn by court entertainers in the reign of Edward III. The actors -- all men -- were called guisers because they were disguised by animal masks. Mummers -- also all men -- might wear masks or might blacken their faces to disguise themselves. If the audience were to recognise one of the players, the magic created by the performance would be lost. Masques and performances continued to be part of the Christmas celebrations at court throughout the Tudor and Jacobean periods.

Folk plays performed by ordinary men for their communities also thrived. Each is slightly different, as might be expected, but all follow the same basic plot. A knight confronts his enemy, one of them is slain and then revived by a 'Doctor'. The theme of the play -- nature's cycle of life and death -- is definitely pagan. The play concludes with celebrations, a hat is passed around for people to give money and ale is offered to the players. One of the characters is often called St. George; another (the one usually killed and then revived) is called the Turk. His appearance dates back to the crusades. Elsewhere this role may be that of real historical character. The fear with which Cromwell and Napoleon were regarded is reflected in their appearance in these plays. Often, there is also a man dressed as a woman, and by the 18th century Father Christmas had joined the ranks of the players as a narrator. The plays were written down in the 18th century at a time when they were beginning to decline in popularity; perhaps the lure of the new Christmas theatricals was too great.

Despite their relative decline following industrialisation, the plays have survived in pockets across the country; Belvoir, Leominster, North Muskham and Overton all have annual performances. These folk plays are real community entertainment and the costumes are brilliant. Often, the mummers wear 'ribbon' costumes, like fitted rag rugs, completing the ensemble with a hat and bells. It's a spectacle not to be missed. If you won't be in England at Christmas, there are opportunities to see Mummers in Cheshire celebrating Halloween and in the Upper Calder valley in Yorkshire celebrating Easter.

Caroling may be very far removed from dancing in a circle, but one thing is for sure: there's still much merriment to be found in the season of carols and winter plays. Why not take the opportunity to attend a carol service? It may not be the middle of the bleak midwinter and there may be no snow falling but the atmosphere in a church or cathedral at Christmas time is indescribably, spine-tingling ethereal. Or perhaps accept the National Trust's invitation to one of England's stately homes to listen to a choir and partake of a mince pie. Leave the hustle and bustle of the world neatly parked outside and indulge yourself. There is something timeless about listening to a choir in a recital room, ball room or great hall. There are full details on the Trust's web site. Cromwell wouldn't approve but generations of waits, carol singers, wassailers, guisers and mummers most definitely would!

Related Articles:

TimeTravel-Britain.com's Roundup of Holiday Music

More Information:

A Booke of Christmas Carols London: c. 1845
Online facsimile of the 1845 book.

Christmas Carols
The lyrics of carols, and origins of the most popular Christmas carols are included on this site.

Hyms and Carols of Christmas

King's College, Cambridge

The National Trust

Some cathedrals and churches where you may enjoy Christmas caroling:

Durham Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral

York Minster


Ashley's Rise Morris

Dartmoor Border Morris: Mumming

Folk Plays

Mummer's Plays

A New Look at English Folk Play Costumes
Suggested Reading:

Spirit of Christmas: A History of Our Best-Loved Carols

The Oxford Book of Carols


Julia Hickey is passionate about England's heritage and particularly of Cumbria, where her husband comes from. In between dragging her family around the country to a variety of historic monuments, she works part-time as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She spends the rest of her week writing. In her spare time, she enjoys walking, dabbling in family history, cross-stitch, tapestry and photography.
Article © 2005 Julia Hickey
Carolers photo courtesy of BritainOnView.com


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