Carol, Wassail and Yule

My children attended their first (and I suspect only) carol service of the season yesterday, sang Hark the Herald and Ding Dong Merrily and While Shepherds Watched, ate a couple of mince pies, and a generally pleasant time.

I managed to avoid it; I have probably sung enough carols for one lifetime. Once or twice when I was a boy I went carol-singing around the village where I grew up, to the annoyance of our neighbours but to our considerable profit (takings included, I remember,a fair bit of cash, a glass of champagne and a slice of the most revolting quiche conceivable, made by a couple who from some obscure and misguided religious principle did not believe in cooking food; how you make raw quiche, and in placation of which mad god, I cannot imagine).

I suppose that’s what you get for wassailing. Wassailing is the ancient practice of the village rowdies going from door to door and demanding food and drink. It seems that it very likely predates the adoption of Christianity in Britain, Wassail being a corruption of an Anglo-Saxon toast (wæs Þu hæl – Be thou hale, of good health) and possibly associated with the barbaric Yule (the Great Midwinter Hunt of Odin, or some such).

Many carols that I would have sung, and that my children sang on Sunday, are similarly of ancient, although less ancient, provenance. The Holly and the Ivy and Good King Wenceslas are medieval, for example, and belong to the wassailing tradition (carols can be broadly divided into wassail songs and hymns, only the latter initially being permitted to be sung in churches from the end of the nineteenth century).

Here, then, is The Holly and the Ivy, sung by the choir of King’s College Chapel.

And here (split into two parts, unfortunately) is the Ralph Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Vaughan Williams of course being an indefatigable folk tune and carol collectors, who captures something of the antique spirit of carol singing.


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