Foolkiller Christmas, Part I is focused mostly on the British Christmas tradition through songs from the 13th century to the present day. We start with the Christmas story in carols, beginning with the Annunciation and ending with ‘… a ship came sailing in…’ (presumably up the Thames) from Bethlehem (no idea how that carol came about, if you do, please share J). Along the way, Mary picks some cherries, Christ is born in Bethlehem, a star appears, the shepherds rejoice, the drummer boy(s) perform, and the Three Kings arrive. Then we segue into the more secular traditions: feasting, wassailing, hunting the wren, and feeding the poor. We’ve got carols from both ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Christmas, a couple of hymns, a few spirituals, a bit of Americana, some songs in French & Gaelic, and the prologue from Hamlet.
Everything you never wanted to know about Christmas – all relevant to today’s show…
About Christmas Carols and ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Christmas
Carols first appeared in Pre-Christian Europe thousands of years ago as songs sung at Winter Solstice/Saturnalia celebrations. As Christianity started to take hold and the church decided that celebrations for Christ’s birth should be standardized, Pope Julius I set Christ’s Mass on December 25 (around year 350), a date said to be arbitrarily chosen to allow Christians to worship under the cover of general pre-Christian festivities. This resulted in a blending of traditions and even though Christianity eventually subsumed the earlier pre-Christian customs, aspects of those traditions have hung on through the centuries resulting, among other things, in carols with both Christian and pre-Christian elements.
For example, consider the carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. Holly, ivy and other greenery such as mistletoe were originally used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival, to ward off evil spirits and to celebrate new growth. When Christianity came to Western Europe, some people (mainly in the UK and Germany) who wanted to keep the greenery gave it Christian meanings. Under the new symbolism the prickly leaves of the holly represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. Its berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns (mistletoe, however, remains a fertility symbol :-))
But back to December 25, which worked fine for Christmas until the Gregorian calendar was adopted by most Catholic countries in 1582. However most Protestant countries, including England, resisted the change, so with the Catholic countries celebrating Christmas on the new, Gregorian December 25, the Protestants were celebrating on what was now the Gregorian January 6 as the original Julian Calendar had a different number of days. So by the time England came around to adopting the new calendar in 1752 they were eleven days off from rest of Europe. Sighing deeply, the English dropped the eleven days and was moved Christmas back to December 25th from January 6th to align with the rest of the world, giving rise to the terms ‘New Christmas’ for 25th December and ‘Old Christmas’ for January 6, which means that any carol that references Christ’s birthday as Jan 6th (like the ‘Cherry Tree Carol’) will have been written before 1752. Fun fact: the news of the change did not reach the colonists living in North Carolina until well after 1752. They continued celebrating on the old Christmas day, ignoring the new date even after they received the news, making North Carolina the last English-speaking area to switch over
The ups and downs of Christmas Celebrations
In Medieval England English nobles celebrated Christmas with feasting, storytelling, hunting, playing and listening to music, dancing, and tournaments. Peasants did not have to work the land during the Twelve Days of Christmas. Instead they enjoyed a feast given by their lord. Twelfth Night often included feasting, taking down Christmas decorations, a King’s cake, and drinking ale or wine.
But when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans (a seriously cheerless bunch) came to power in England, the long-cherished rituals of Christmas came to a temporary end and the singing of carols was banned (which, of course, didn’t stop people from singing them in secret).
From the mid-1500s, objections to supposedly frivolous additions to the religious calendar, like Christmas, were voiced by Puritan leaders. They saw Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities. In January 1645, Parliament produced a new Directory for Public Worship which made clear that festival days, including Christmas, were not to be celebrated but spent in respectful contemplation. During Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653-58), stricter laws were passed to catch anyone holding or attending a special Christmas church service. From 1656, legislation was enacted to ensure that every Sunday was stringently observed as the Lord’s Day. By contrast, shops and markets were told to stay open on 25 December, and in the City of London soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for Christmas celebrations.
But come the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, legislation enacted between 1642-60 was declared null and void, and both the religious and the secular elements of the Twelve Days of Christmas were once again celebrated freely. And not only had the popular Christmas carols of previous eras survived, but interest in them was renewed with passion and exuberance: both the 18th Century and Victorian periods were golden eras in carol-writing, producing many of the treasures that we know and love today. Today we bring you the song ‘Old Christmas Return’d, referencing the Reformation and subsequent Restoration.
The other thing that ‘Old Christmas Return’d’, references is the long-standing Christmas tradition of feeding the poor. Although the tradition dated back centuries, that, too, was banned during the Reformation, resulting in very hard times indeed.
And, finally, a word about wassailing…
Wassailing songs are among the most popular secular songs of Christmas. Wassail, a word of Norse roots equivalent to the phrase ” Your health” is a hot mulled cider, drunk traditionally as an integral part of a Medieval Christmastide English tradition in two variations. The house-visiting wassail is the practice of people going door-to-door, singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts. The orchard-visiting wassail refers to the ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider-producing regions of England, reciting incantations and singing to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.