Here’s part of a piece Miss Mussel had in The Toronto Star last week about what certain Christmas carol lyrics are really talking about.
Wassailing: Essentially an excuse for a booze-up, wassailing is a type of Christmas trick-or-treating/extortion. Peasants would turn up on the doorstep of the feudal lord that owned their land and start singing.
In exchange, the lord would give out drink and food. The idea was that because they were wishing the lord well (love and joy come to you and to you your wassail too), it wasn’t begging. It was one of the only times of the year peasants wouldn’t have to trade their dignity for a full belly.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas is a slightly more sinister wassailing carol. In England, it was not uncommon for groups of teenaged boys to go around to the wealthy houses in their neighbourhood and demand food and drink. (We won’t go until we get some.)
Neighbours that weren’t immediately forthcoming risked having their house vandalized.
Gitchi Manitou (’Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled, That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead): The Huron Carol, sometimes called ’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, is Canada’s oldest carol.
It was written in 1643 by Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf in the native language of the Wendat/Huron people he was trying to convert near what is now Midland, Ont.
Gitchi Manitou, the Algonquian word for deity or spirit, was co-opted by missionaries trying to describe the idea of a Christian God to aboriginals. The Huron Carol was translated into English in 1926.
Bells: This seems rather basic at first glance but stay with me. There are two types of bells referenced in Christmas songs: church bells and sleigh bells.
Ding Dong Merrily on High, Carol of the Bells, Silver Bells and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day all refer to church bells. In the days before wristwatches and noise ordinances, church bells were rung for at least half an hour at the beginning and end of services and at times of celebration (weddings, coronations, baptisms, etc.).
On Christmas Eve, the bells would be rung at midnight to announce Christ’s birth and again Christmas morning to remind everyone that they were late for church. Now that bells aren’t rung very often, an image of the bell itself represents the celebratory air of the season.
Jingle Bells and Sleigh Ride tell of a much more cheeky sort of bell-ringing. If one-horse open sleighs (that is two-person sleighs pulled by one horse) were the Corvettes of the 19th century, then the horse’s harness was the after-market rims and spoiler. A young man pulling up to church or the village hall in his sleigh with bells polished and jingling would catch the eye of all eligible young ladies. Very much the point of the endeavour.
The social customs of the Victorian period dictated that young men and women could not spend time together unchaperoned. Taking Miss Fanny Bright for a ride in your sleigh meant that you could have some time alone. Even if it was a four-person sleigh with another couple riding along, there was still a chance to snuggle close under the blankets with your beloved to “keep warm.”
An overturned sleigh (“We got into a drifted bank and then we got upsot”) provided even more opportunity and one gets the impression in Jingle Bells that the upsotting wasn’t entirely accidental.
Yule: Brought to England by the Norse, Yule is a pagan festival observed from late December to early January. When it was merged with Christianity in the 11th century, Yule became the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Even 1,000 years ago, people weren’t above one-upmanship, and competition for the largest Yule log meant that eventually trees much too big for the already enormous fireplaces were laid on the floor and fed into the fire until, days later (the more the better), it was finally consumed.
Eventually, houses got too small to have open-hearthed fires, so burning a Yule log gave way to consuming the log in cake form. Not a bad trade.
Holly & Ivy: While they are always sung of together (Sans Day Carol, Holly & the Ivy), ivy is more of a hanger-on — the Nicole Richie to holly’s Paris Hilton. Both have been used for over 700 years as Christmas decorations by the Church and before that were central to pagan winter solstice celebrations and the Roman Saturnalia.
The central place this pair has earned is likely a matter of convenience: both holly and ivy grow naturally all over Western Europe through the winter, were easily available and priced right for the hovel segment of the decorating market.
In the days of practically universal illiteracy, the Church routinely transformed everyday objects into representations of Christ. In this case, the white berry was a reminder of the silk in which the infant Jesus was wrapped. Later in the season, the red berry was Christ’s blood and the prickliness of the leaves the crown of thorns.
This season, when you switch on your favourite Christmas records or join in a carol sing, spare a thought for charity extortionists, keeping up with the Joneses and frisky teenagers. Plus ça change.