Saturday, December 29, 2018

New Year's Celebrations in the 18th Century: The Traditions of America's Early Past

~My visits to historic Greenfield Village during their Holiday Nights extravaganza allows me to not only enjoy Christmas past from a multitude of eras,  as you may have read HERE,  but a few of the historic homes actually show the celebration of New Year's Eve and Day,  such as the one once belonging to John Giddings,  and this was the house where the  "party"  photos you are about to see in this posting were taken  (though,  this being a historic building,  no actual party occurred,  but lots of posing did!!)~  
Thank you.

~   ~   ~

In our modern era we think of the New Year's holiday as a time for celebrators to stay up extremely late,  getting stupidly drunk,  watching the ball drop,  and then gorging themselves on pizza,  chips,  and other snacks for 12 hours-plus while watching more football in one day than anyone does in an entire season.
My how times have  *somewhat*  changed...
In search of New Year's Eve festivities...
'Twas not too long before the American Revolution that New Year's took on a little bit of a different observance than today and was actually celebrated in the month of March rather than in January.
Yes,  March.
You see,  early on,  New Year's Eve was on the evening of March 24,  according to the Julian Calendar,  and therefore,  New Year's Day was March 25th.  This is why most of our months have the names they do:
September comes from the Latin word  "seven"  and October is  "eight" - here you go - - 
Martius,  Aprilis,  Maius,  Junius,  Quintilis,  Sextilis,  September,  October,  November,  and December.  The last six names were taken from the words for five,  six,  seven,  eight,  nine,  and ten.  Romulus,  the legendary first ruler of Rome,  is supposed to have introduced this calendar in the 700s B.C.
January and February were the 11th and 12th months.
This practice lasted until the year 1752. 
Now,  pay attention,  for it gets a little complicated here:  according to numerous sources  (linked at the bottom of this post),  it was way back in 45 B.C.,  that Julius Caesar ordered a calendar consisting of twelve months based on a solar year.  This calendar employed a cycle of three years of 365 days,  followed by a year of 366 days  (leap year).  When first implemented,  the  "Julian Calendar"  also moved the beginning of the year from March 1 to January 1.  However,  following the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century,  the beginning of the new year was gradually realigned to coincide with Christian festivals.  Centuries later,  by the seventh century,  Christmas Day marked the beginning of the new year in many countries.
But it was in the ninth century that parts of southern Europe began observing the first day of the new year on March 25 to coincide with Annunciation Day,  or Lady Day,  when Christians celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin.  This was the church holiday that occurred nine months prior to Christmas celebrating the Angel Gabriel's revelation to the Virgin Mary that she was to be the mother of the Messiah.  A fine example of this new year  date comes from Adam Winthrop,  the father of English Puritan lawyer and one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony,  John Winthrop.  On March 25,  1620,  Adam wrote in his diary,  "The new year beginneth."
Because the year began in March,  records referring to the  "first month"  pertain to March;  to the second month pertain to April,  etc.,  so that  "the 19th of the 12th month"  would be February 19.  In fact,  in Latin,  September means seventh month,  October means eighth month,  November means ninth month,  and December means tenth month.  Use of numbers,  rather than names,  of months was especially prevalent in Quaker records.
I can only imagine the confusion
this caused.
During the Middle Ages,  it began to became apparent that the Julian leap year formula had overcompensated for the actual length of a solar year,  having added an extra day every 128 years.  However, no adjustments were made to compensate.  By 1582,  seasonal equinoxes were falling 10 days  "too early,"  and some church holidays,  such as Easter,  did not always fall in the proper seasons.  In that year,  Pope Gregory XIII authorized,  and most Roman Catholic countries adopted,  the  "Gregorian"  or  "New Style"  Calendar.  As part of the change,  ten days were dropped from the month of October,  and the formula for determining leap years was revised so that only years divisible by 400  (e.g.,  1600,  2000)  at the end of a century would be leap years.  January 1 was established as the first day of the new year.  Protestant countries,  including England and its colonies,  not recognizing the authority of the Pope,  continued to use the Julian Calendar.
Between 1582 and 1752,  not only were two calendars in use in Europe  (and in European colonies),  but two different starts of the year were in use.  Although the  "Legal"  year began on March 25, the use of the Gregorian calendar by other European countries led to January 1 becoming more commonly celebrated as  "New Year's Day"  and given as the first day of the year in almanacs.
It wasn't until 1750 that an act of Parliament in England changed calendars dates to align with the Gregorian Calendar rather than remain with the Julian calendar.  The beginning of the legal new year was then moved from March 25 to January 1.
Henceforth,  New Year's celebrations will take place on the evening of December 31st and lasting into the following day. 
As a result,  people born before 1752 had to add 11 days to their birth dates.  Also,  those individuals born between January 1 and March 24  (again,  before 1752,  as George Washington,  for example,  was born in February),  also had to add a year to be in sync with the new calendar,  for New Year's Day was moved from March 25 to January 1st.  This double dating process was used in Great Britain and its colonies,  including America,  to clarify dates occurring between January 1 and March 24 on the years between 1582,  the date of the original introduction of the Gregorian calendar,  and 1752,  when Great Britain adopted the calendar.
Whew! Did you get all that?
So here we are in,  say,  1769,  and we can now concentrate more on living within the Gregorian Calendar reign,  where,  in colonial America  (and in cultures throughout the world),  December 31st  (New Year's Eve),  & the first of January  (New Year’s Day),  was considered a major holiday,  rivaling,  and even,  in many instances,  over-taking Christmas.  There were quite a few religious denominations,  such as Congregationalists,  who disapproved of Christmas because of its blending of Paganism with Christianity,  though many of their religious flock still enjoyed the day,  either privately or even with a day in prayer.  But these same folk happily and publicly celebrated the coming of the New Year,  and so for many in the Protestant populace it was a much bigger holiday.  And,  yes,  they did have New Year's Eve parties,  not unlike today in so many ways.  Family and friends would gather to enjoy each other's company,  eat food,  and play games.
I was greeted and warmly welcomed into the Giddings home on New Year's Eve to help celebrate the coming of 1770.
So kind of you to come, Sir.
Please have a warm by the fire. 
You must partake in the eggnog 
and other treats we have.
Among the many treats and foodstuffs available,  a traditional food that was eaten on New Year's Eve,  introduced by the Germans and Swiss settlers who came to the colony of Pennsylvania,  was sauerkraut.  Made of cabbage that has been fermented through the process of pickling,  sauerkraut derives its name from the German words for  "sour"  and  "cabbage."  Sauerkraut is traditionally cooked with sausage,  kielbasa or other pork meats. 
One interesting tradition in England that I imagine happened here in America as well was when the hands of the clock approached the hour of midnight,  the head of the family would rise,  go to the front door,  open it wide,  and would hold it open until the last stroke of midnight had died away.  Having let the Old Year out and the New Year in,  he shuts the door quietly and returns inside.  
Did this happen here in America?  I would imagine so by some of the English immigrants at the time,  though I have no primary source proof.  However,  I just might make this an annual tradition myself,  for I rather like the idea.

The custom of singing Auld Lang Syne on New Year's Eve also goes back to the 18th century British Isles when guests ended a party standing in a circle and singing this song.  Auld Lang Syne,  written in 1788 by Robert Burns,  is one of the most popular New Year's  'carols,'  and was set to the tune of an old folk song.  It is well known in many countries,  especially in the English-speaking world,  its traditional use being to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight.  The song's Scots title may be translated into standard English as  "old long since,"  or characteristically,  "long long ago,"  "days gone by,"  or  "old times."  Consequently,  "for auld lang syne,"  as it appears in the first line of the chorus,  might be loosely translated as  "for  (the sake of)  old times."  The entire song’s message merely means to just forget about the past and look ahead to the new year with hope.

Here is another tradition to welcome the new year:

New Year's Eve was a time for young ladies to get together,  
prepare a large bowl of wassail and carry it from house to house,  
sharing the warm,  spiced fruited ale with their neighbors,  and 
receiving small gifts in return. 
The word  "Wassail"  meant  "good health,"  so to say  "Wassail"  to someone  (or to a group)  meant to wish good health upon the person or people.
This more genteel form of  "wassailing"  was not nearly as raucous as when the men did it.  In fact,  quite the opposite:  the men that ventured out to wassail  (also known as mumming),  were often of the working class,  and they would wear garish costumes as a disguise and roam the streets making themselves known to all,  or went house to house in a fashion somewhat similar to  our modern Hallowe'en trick-or-treating,  and they would be singing,  dancing,  and putting on short skits or plays,  to receive food and drink.  Sometimes they would demand  the warm drink  "in kind"  from the master of the house.
Wassailers/Mummers...and me.
Alas,  I had nothing to give them...
Another form of wassailing was when the English colonists added a turkey shoot to New Year’s Day activities,  along with the custom of shooting off guns.  A group would gather together and start shooting their guns and shout off  New Year’s greetings.  As they went from house to house,  men from each household would join the gathering,  until it became quite large.  As they continued on and drinking their  ‘warmth,’  these rabble rousers would knock rudely upon the doors or throw rocks at the windows,  and then demand money.
John Selden,  an English jurist  (scholar of English law and constitution),  was a prolific writer,  and one of his books,  published in 1689  (some thirty five years after his death in 1654),  was titled  Table Talk.  In it,  Selden noted:  I see a custome in some parts among us:  I mean the yearly Was-haile in the country on the vigil of the new yeare,  which I conjecture was a usuall ceremony among the Saxons before Hengist,  as a note of health-wishing  (and so perhaps you might make it Wish-heil),  which was exprest among other nations in that form of drinking to the health of their mistresses and friends.
Some found the mummers entertaining and enjoyable,  while others found them to be obnoxious drunks.  By 1808,  masquerading was considered a public nuisance and a punishable offense.  So,  for many in the villages,  New Year’s Eve meant holding a night of prayer and reflection inside their church,  often referred to as a watch night.  These watch nights trace their Methodist history to 1770,  where the first one was held in St. George’s Methodist Church.  The religious observances served to distract participants from the revelry outside,  since the mummers continued their activities into the 1850s,  when the public nuisance law was repealed.

Meanwhile,  back at the Giddings' house:
The party was just beginning on this cold and rainy New Year's Eve.
And they were prepared for us!

Even my son and his girlfriend joined in the festivities!
I certainly did enjoy visiting and tasting the treats of the 
New Year's celebration.
(No,  I did not actually eat any of the treats here - they were for show only)

To hear a bit more of our New Year's fun,  please click the link below:
Just as it was for Christmas,  chocolate was quite the treat for the New Year's in some households as well.
In 1785,  Thomas Jefferson predicted that chocolate would become the favorite beverage in North America over coffee and tea.  This prediction came after the Boston Tea Party and the rejection of tea by the colonists,  and prior to the widespread consumption of coffee in North America.
Chocolate remained exclusively a drink until the mid-19th century when advertisements for solid eating chocolate first appeared.
Here,  inside the Giddings' kitchen,  we see a chocolateer working his craft and explaining the importance and fondness of this treat to the colonists that we now take for granted:

The well-to-do Giddings family hired a chocolateer to entertain guests and enjoy the outcome of the process.
And to hear of the process of making colonial chocolate,  please click the following two links:

There was also a custom called  "Apple-howling"  in which a group of celebrants on New Years Eve would take the wassail bowl and go into any nearby orchard.  They would encircle a certain tree and,  while rapping the tree with sticks,  chant the following verses:
Stand fast root,  bear well top,  Pray God send us a good howling crop;
Every twig,  apples big;  Every bough,  apples enough;
Hats full,  caps full,  Full quarter sacks full.
This custom was also practiced on what was called Twelfth Eve:
"On Twelfth Eve, in Devonshire,  it is customary for the farmer to leave his warm fireside,  accompanied by a band of rustics,  with guns,  blunderbusses,  etc.,  presenting an appearance which at other times would be somewhat alarming.  Thus armed,  the band proceed to an adjoining orchard,  where is selected one of the most fruitful and aged of the apple trees,  grouping round which they stand and offer up their invocations in the following doggerel rhyme:  “Here's to thee/ Old apple tree!/ Whence thou mayst bud,/ And whence thou mayst blow,/ And whence thou mayst bear,/ Apples enow:/ Hats full,/ Caps full,/ Bushels,/ bushels, sacks full,/ And my pockets full, too!/ Huzza! huzza!”  The cider-jug is then passed around,  and with many a hearty shout,  the party fire off their guns,  charged with powder only, amidst the branches."

To hear the Apple Tree Wassail,  please click the link here:

Before eating breakfast on New Year's Day morning,  some people would take turns opening a Bible completely at random.  Then a verse would be pointed to on the two open pages.  The randomly chosen verse was believed to foreshadow the events of the following year for the participant.
Then there was one of the most popular rituals to celebrate the incoming New Year:  venturing out on this first day of the year for open house visiting;  it was considered an insult to not take part. 
The visits would not last very long - they could last anywhere from a few minutes to a half  hour,  but folks would try to make it to as many of the welcoming houses as they could,  so there was no need for long visits.
I do not wish to offend,  so off I go on New Year's Day for more 
visiting,  such as back to the home of John Giddings,  built 
around 1750,  for I know they have very fine food gifts to give.
Neighbors often provided punches,  cakes,  and good company for those who visited,  for this was a time to speak of the old with hopes for the new.  Festivities included Dutch food traditions and sharing and eating New Year’s cake to bring good luck.  And there were always those special houses that were noted for having particular treats,  such as eggnog,  rum punch,  pickled oysters,  as well as honeycakes and olykoeks (doughnuts).  In New York,  when leaving a Dutch home on New Year’s,  it was customary to break off a piece of a  “sharing cake”  near the front door. 
This was the hosts’  way of showing their hospitality.
By the way,  I had read somewhere that during the 1790s,  President George Washington continued the tradition of visiting homes on New Year’s Day  (though I must admit I cannot locate where I saw that information). 
Throughout the southern colonies,  a favorite food was called  "Hoppin' John and greens."  This dish consisted of black-eyed peas mixed with rice,  onion and fried bacon slices.  Some families would substitute ham for the bacon.  The  "greens"  referred to the leaves and stems of either mustard,  collard or turnip.  When the dish was kept as leftovers to be eaten on the day after New Years Day,  its name was changed to  "Skippin' Jenny."

As mentioned,  it was customary to give small gifts on New Years Day.  It was believed that the ending of the previous year was to be celebrated with drinking and socializing with loved ones and friends,  and that the starting of the new year should be celebrated with the giving and receiving of gifts.  Going back a couple of centuries,  to 1598,  Bishop Hall,  in his Satires,  noted that the usual New Year's gift should be a capon  (hen)  or a pomade  (an orange with cloves stuck in it).  A ribbon would be tied around it,  and then the entire exposed surface would be covered with whole cloves and then dusted in cinnamon.
There was quite the New Year's feast to be had inside the Noah 
Webster House.  Though it was built in the early 19th century,  
Noah himself,  along with Rebecca his wife,  were from the 18th 
century and their home,  in many cases,  tended to reflect that in 
the look and fashion. 

Anna Green Winslow  (November 29, 1759 – July 19, 1780),  a member of the prominent Winslow family of Boston,  Massachusetts,  was a girl who wrote a series of letters to her mother between 1771 and 1773 that show the daily life of the gentry in Boston at the first stirrings of the American Revolution.  She made copies of the letters into an eight-by-six-and-a-half-inch book in order to improve her penmanship,  making the accounts a sort of diary as well.  This diary,  edited by 19th-century American historian and author Alice Morse Earle,  was published in 1894 under the title Diary of Anna Green Winslow:  A Boston School Girl of 1771,  and has never gone out of print.  It provides a rare window into the life of an affluent teenage girl in colonial Boston. 
The only known likeness of
Anna Green Winslow
Now let's read a couple of entries from Miss Winslow's  diary  (spelling intact):
1st Jany 1772: 
I wish my Papa,  Mama,  brother...cousin...and all the rest of my acquaintance at Cumberland...a Happy New Year,  I have bestow'd no new year's gift as yet.  But have received one very handsome one,  viz.  the History of Joseph Andrews abreviated.  In nice Guilt and flowers covers.  This afternoon being a holiday I am going to pay my compliments on Sudbury Street
~Just a few days later, on January 4th,  Anna describes gifts she had received,  as was the custom on New Year's to do so,  and so I am including it here:
Jany 4th 1772 
I was dress'd in my yellow coat,  my black bib & apron,  my pompedore shoes,  the cap my aunt Storer sometime since presented me with  (blue ribbins on it)  & a very handsome loket in the shape of a hart she gave me—the past pin my Hond Papa presented me with in my cap,  My new cloak & bonnet on,  my pompedore gloves, &c, &c. And I would tell you,  that for the first time,  they all lik'd my dress very much.  My cloak & bonnett are really very handsome,  & so they had need be.  For they cost an amasing sight of money,  not quite  £45 tho'  Aunt Suky said,  that she suppos'd Aunt Deming would be frighted out of her Wits at the money it cost.
New Year's Day meeting & greeting on the streets 
and in the homes was commonplace during 
the time of our founding generation.
(Photo courtesy of Gary Thomas)

The original letter in 
John Adam's own hand

From John Adams to his wife Abigail:
Jany.  1.  1779
I wish you an happy new Year,  and many happy Years -- and all the Blessings of Life.  Who knows but this Year may be more prosperous for our Country than any We have seen.  For my own Part I have hopes that it will.  Great Blessings are in store for it,  and they may come this Year as well as another.  You and I however must prepare our Minds to enjoy the Prosperity of others not our own.  In Poverty and Symplicity,  We shall be happy,  whenever our Country is so.  Johnny sends Duty.  Mr.  Williams waits -- I knew of his going but this Moment. -- I think I shall see you this Year,  in spight of British Men of War.
If it should be otherwise ordered, however, we must submit.

Songs about New Year's,  such as the aforementioned Auld Lang Syne,  are not too rare,  and one,  What Are You Doing New Year's Eve,  was actually written fairly recently  (considering),  in 1947.
But another song that is actually more associated with Christmas but can be just as suited to New Year's:  Deck the Hall.  Now,  yes,  I know I just wrote about this song as a Christmas Carol HERE,  but it tends to cover the entire Christmastide rather than only December 25th.  What I have here are the original lyrics before the 1877 changes removed the drinking references:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
'Tis the season to be jolly,
Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel,
Troll the ancient Christmas carol,

See the flowing bowl before us,
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Follow me in merry measure,
While I sing of beauty's treasure

This was written during the time when the Christmas Tide began on December 25th and ended on 12th Night  (or Epiphany or Three Kings Day or January 5th/6th - take your pick) - the 12 Days of Christmas.  So the inclusion and blending of holiday celebrations can be seen with each verse.  And it's the last verse that explains to us the joy of the old-style New Year's Eve  & Day festivities in four short lines:

Fast away the old year passes,
Hail the new,  ye lads and lasses!
Laughing, quaffing all together,
Heedless of the wind and weather.

See the blazing yule before us...
(Yes, this is what we sing to-day rather than the original  See the flowing bowl before us...)
Oh,  and the one custom that has,  over the years,  been associated with the New Year's Eve celebration is the embracing and kissing of loved ones.

And one last tradition I had learned of:  the lighting of a bayberry candle.  Burning bayberry candles on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve is a tradition that has been around for many years - hinting at the colonial times.  From the Old Farmer's Almanac we found this:
“A bayberry candle / Burned to the socket / Brings food and larder /And gold to the pocket.” 
Another tradition says that if you burn a bayberry candle all the way down on New Year’s Eve,  you will have good fortune throughout the coming year.  The candle should be lit in the evening,  when you see the first star appear in the sky.  You should not extinguish the candle yourself  (bad luck!);  it should burn until after midnight down to the nub and go out on its own.  For this reason,  you should choose candles with 8 to 9 hours burn time.
Yes,  I plan to add this to the traditions in my own home.
Many thanks to Marilyn Rautio  (DAR member)  for bringing this to my attention!

When you think about it,  there is not as much difference to our modern New Year's celebrations in comparison to the way it was celebrated in the 1700s;  we still have parties and gatherings on New Year's Eve,  guns are still shot off  (though we also have the fireworks as well),  food and drink is still served,  and even visiting on New Year's Day still occurs - in fact,  my wife and I visit friends almost every January 1st.  
Now,  I don't believe many of us here in 21st century America go house to house wassailing anymore,  nor do I suspect many,  if any,  venture out to an apple orchard to practice  "apple howling."
But new traditions have,  instead, taken precedent,  such as watching the football games,  watching movies, and even shopping for those New Year's deals.
Me?  I visit with friends and will even visit The Henry Ford Museum every-so-often on this day.  I used to go to Greenfield Village for New Year's Eve or Day when they remained open during daylight hours,  though it's been quite a few years since they've done this.  I mean,  I can't think of a better way to welcome the future than by visiting the past, you know?

So,  "Be at War with your Vices,  at Peace with your Neighbours,  and let every New-Year find you a better Man." ~Quoted in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack,  December 1755. 
And I would like to wish all of my readers a very Happy New Year. 
Truly,  may it be filled with all things good and pleasant.

Until next time,  see you in time.

To learn on how our colonial ancestors celebrated Christmas,  please click HERE
To learn about wintertime in the past,  please click HERE
To learn about springtime in the past,  please click HERE
To learn about summertime in the past,  please click HERE
To learn about autumn/harvest in the past,  please click HERE
To learn about colonial farming,  please click HERE
To learn about an 18th century Thanksgiving,  please click HERE
To learn about life as once lived in the historic Giddings House,  please click HERE
To learn about a general overview on colonial life,  please click HERE

Sources came from THIS site,  THIS site,  from THIS site
and from THIS site,  as well as from THIS book
Also,  the  New England Historical Society
and The Connecticut State Library
Some wassail information came from HERE
The book of Anna Green Winslow's diary HERE
The book of John & Abigail Adams' letters HERE
Some of the presenters at Greenfield Village also gave me information as well

By the way,  if you have never visited Greenfield Village in Dearborn,  Michigan,  then you would do yourself right by doing so,  for it is as amazing a place for history lovers as one can see.  It is over 300 years of American history situated on about 90 acres of land.  Throughout the season  (from April through December)  one can see the actual homes once belonging to Henry Ford,  Wilbur & Orville Wright,  Harvey Firestone,  Thomas Edison's Menlo Park Laboratory,  the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln once practiced law,  a mid-19th century doctor's office,  four homes built in 18th century America and one built in 17th century England,  the shop where the Wright Brothers built the world's first successful airplane,  working period farms,  an 1850s tavern  (where you can eat food commonly served in the 19th century),  and,  well,  so much more.
And at Christmas time you will step into Christmas past like you've never seen before at the Holiday Nights event.
No...I don't work for Greenfield Village,  but I do love it enough to give it a passionate shout out any chance I get.  It's truly an amazing place.
Click HERE for more information on Greenfield Village.
Happy New Year!

~   ~   ~

Thursday, December 20, 2018

'tis the Season to Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol: Musings on Old World Christmas Songs

To be honest,  I can easily write about dozens of the old world Christmas carols - some known well,  and others hardly known at all.  I chose the four here because for this Christmas season they have been my favorites above others.
There is a history here...of course there is!

Troll  (verb)
1.  to sing or utter in a full, rolling voice.
2.  to sing in the manner of a round or catch.

We will perform for a warm bowl of ale
Christmas canticles of some form have been around for millennia,  and,  believe it or not,  a few from the ancient times still remain in our midst.  For instance,  it's said that  "The Wexford Carol"  may come from 12th century Ireland.   Medieval/early Renaissance England gave us  "The Boars Head Carol,"   "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,"  and  "The Gloucestershire Wassail."   "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"  is from the 15th century,  "Bring A Torch Jeannette Isabella"  and  "Coventry Carol"  hails from the mid-1500s,  with the mid-to-late 1600s bringing us  "All You That Are Good Fellows,"   "I Saw Three Ships,"   "The Huron Carol,"  and  "The First Noel."   "The Holly and the Ivy"  is from around 1710,   "Joy To the World"  was written in Virginia in 1719,  "Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing"  was written in 1739,  and  "O Come All Ye Faithfull"  is from the 1750s.  "Silent Night"  celebrated its 200th anniversary on Christmas Eve 2018,  as it made its debut in Austria on December 24,  1818,  "Jingle Bells"  is from 1857 America,  and, again from England,  "Past Three O'clock"  from the later 19th century - all being a very few examples of the many carols from times long past...some still popular to this day.
To me,  part of the whimsy of the old carols are the words,  for many of the traditional Christmas songs in English contain words or references that have changed in meaning or fallen out of common use.   And the fact that we here in the 21st century still sing tunes with such archaic verbiage that we would never use in our everyday speak always tends to give me a smile.
My friend,  Mary,  decks the halls of her
historic home 17th century period fashion

Photo courtesy of Mary Spencer
Take  "Deck the Hall,"  for example,  which has music from possibly as early as the 16th century but has lyrics which may have been written in the mid-19th century  (or perhaps a few decades,  or even a century,  earlier,  depending).  Coming from old Wales,  it is one of the most famous and popular of all Christmas carols and has several words that may stump modern folk when broken down.  The lyrics may have actually been written only about 150+ years old,  but linguistically hearken back to a much earlier time,  to a style of  centuries past.  For instance,  the first word in the title of the song and in its first verse -  "deck"  - is a verb meaning  “to adorn.”  It entered the English language in about 1570 and is from Middle Dutch dekken  “to cover.”
"Hall"  in the carol's meaning may have a different definition than what we consider what a hall  is today.  Common in the 17th and 18th centuries,  what was once called the hall  inside a home was not too far removed from what we now call a living room or family room.  Whereas the formal parlor in a house was reserved for the closest of friends or special visitors,  the great hall would have been the room where family and friends of all kinds would congregate for visits,  gatherings,  where crafts and tasks such as quilting,  spinning and weaving would occur,  and,  yes,  where even eating a meal could take place.
Another  'dekkened'  hall of Mary's
Photo courtesy of Mary Spencer
So,  could  "Deck the Hall"  mean to adorn the  'living room,'  much as we do today?
Methinks it fairly certain,  though it's more of a strong educated guess due to my own research.
It certainly does make sense,  though.
But what about  "boughs of holly"?
Well,  bringing greenery inside the home in winter dates back to the old Pagan Winter Solstice practices,  one that Christians took onto themselves in their own celebrations of the birth of the Christ child.  But the idea of decorating a tree inside a home wasn't very well-known outside of Germany in the 17th & 18th centuries,  so the type of greenery brought into a home for seasonal decoration would be winter greens that kept their summer color and was easily manageable such as holly and ivy,  with a sprig of mistletoe or a kissing ball prominently displayed.  And wreaths.
Wreaths were used centuries ago during the Pagan Yule festival and were meant to symbolize nature and the promise of spring.  They often held candles that were lit in hopes of  the return of the warmth and the sunlight.   In the 16th century,  the use of wreaths were adopted by Christians and became a custom in the form of Advent wreaths.  A wreath that's hanging on one's door  (or possibly window)  at Christmas may symbolize the invitation of  Jesus into their home,  or,  in more modern times,  it may be inviting the spirit of  Christmas into the home along with good luck.
A great effort was made to decorate the churches with laurel,  holly,  and other garlands.
Oh!  To be able to visit one day
and partake in a period Christmas!

Photo courtesy of Mary Spencer
My favorite word in the lyrics,  however,  is the contraction of it is :  'tis.  Saying  " 'tis the season"  is a phrase often spoken without a second thought,  and is sometimes spoken outside of  the song during the Christmas season by so many  ("Look at all the people out," said Betty.
"Well,  replied, Jane,  " 'tis the season.").
Outside of these examples,  how often do  you  say  " 'tis"?
The verb  "don,"  meaning  “put on,”  is a 14th century contraction of  “do on.”  For example,  "Do on your shoes."  And  "gay"   entered the language in the 12th century with the meaning  “full of joy or mirth.”
As for  "troll,"  just scroll to the top of this post to read its meaning for this old carol.
The word  "Yuletide"  is used now as a synonym for the Christmas season in general.  In a more narrow sense it can refer to the twelve days of Christmas,  usually counted from Christmas on December 25 to the arrival of the Three Kings on January 6   (Epiphany).  As mentioned above,  though there is always debate  (and debates can be good,  unless they're on Facebook),  before the arrival of Christianity,  pagans,  including the ancestors of English Christians, celebrated the Winter Solstice as Yule.  The Yule log represented the renewal of the sun.   The suffix – 'tide'  in Yuletide is from Old English  "tid,”  meaning a point or portion of time,  or  "due time,”  The tide that ebbs and flows  is from the same word.
When the word  carol  entered English,  about the year 1300,  it referred to a dance.  The meaning of  carol  as a  “Christmas hymn”  dates from 1502,  and it could be that there was singing along with the dancing and the dancing part dropped out.
And there you have  "Deck the Halls,"  all broken down for you.
Except....there were a set of lyrics written before the more, shall we say,  modern  lyrics we know so well: 

1. Deck the hall with boughs of holly,      
Fa la la la la, la la la la,
'Tis the season to be jolly,
Subtle Christmas decorations
Fa la la la la, la la la la,

 Fill the mead-cup,  drain the barrel,
    Fa la la, la la, la la la,
Troul the ancient Christmas carol,
    Fa la la la la, la la la la.

2. See the flowing bowl before us,
    Fa la la la la, la la la la,
Strike the harp and join the chorus;
    Fa la la la la, la la la la,
Follow me in merry measure,
    Fa la la, la la, la la la,
While I sing of beauty's treasure,
    Fa la la la la, la la la la.

3. Fast away the old year passes,
    Fa la la la la, la la la la,
Hail the new,  ye lads and lasses!
    Fa la la la la, la la la la,
Laughing,  quaffing,  all together,
    Fa la la, la la, la la la,
Heedless of the wind and weather,
    Fa la la la la, la la la la.

These lyrics actually pre-date the more commonly known words possibly by a century,  which seems to turn it into a more,  shall we say,  drinking song,  which was common at the time.
Mead:  an old alcoholic beverage, and the mead cup is,  well,  pretty self-explanatory,  I would think.
Barrel:  a wooden barrel filled with homemade beverage,  in this case,  with mead.
Bowl:  passing a wooden bowl,  similar to wassailers and mummers,  was a very popular way to share the drinks in the British Isles and early America.
Quaffing:  drinking a beverage with hearty enjoyment.

And here it is performed by Simply Dickens at a 19th century pub in Holly,  Michigan.
Yep---I taught the guests the chorus and they sang along:

Now,  a question:
How many of you eat turkey for Christmas dinner?
How many have ham?
How many delight in eating Boar’s Head??
Yes,  a boar's head!
The boar's head in hand bear I,
bedecked with bays and rosemary...
Roasted boar,  with an apple in it's mouth,  was a staple of medieval banquets and,  with the fanfare of trumpets and the songs of minstrels,  the meal was carried to the table inside the banquet hall on a silver  (or gold)  platter decorated with sprigs of evergreen,  bays,  rosemary,  and holly.
This pageant is rooted in ancient times when the boar was sovereign of the forest.  A ferocious beast and menace to humans,  it was hunted as a public enemy.  As Christian beliefs overtook pagan customs in Europe,  the presentation of a boar's head at Christmas came to symbolize the triumph of the Christ Child over sin.
It was such a popular dish for Christmas that a song – a carol – had been written about it called…well…the  "Boar’s Head Carol."  The song was first published in English during the 1520’s in a book entitled  'Christmase Carolles Newly Emprynted at London,'  but it undoubtedly had been around much longer than that:

Verse 1)  The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you,  my masters,  be merry 
Quod estes in convivio   (Translation:  As many as are in the feast)

CHORUS) Caput apri defero  (Translation:  The boar's head I offer)
Reddens laudes Domino  (Translation:  Giving praises to the Lord)

Verse 2)  The boar's head,  as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico.  (Translation:  Let us serve with a song)


Verse 3)  Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.  (Translation:  In the hall of Queen’s  [College, Oxford])

Although the modern versions of the song makes no mention of Christmas,  the original verses do:
“The boar's head we bring with song, 
in worship of Him that thus sprung, 
of a Virgin to redress all wrong; 

A boar's head wasn't only served in great banquet halls,  but also in the more upper-class homes of the period.
Yes,  it was quite a dish.
Yes,  it was quite a carol.
And,  yes, we actually had a Boar's Head party at my house a few years back:
A boar's head bedecked with greenery along with
a plum pudding.


Wassail!   wassail!  all over the town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl,  we'll drink unto thee.
(1st verse to Gloucestershire Wassail)

The Wassail Bowl
Wassail  (pronounced Wah-sail,  and  not   'wassle'   like so many tend to do)  means good health or be healthy.  And,  according to the current etymology  from Merriam-Webster,  Wassailing was a  "custom of going caroling house to house at Christmas time,"  which is recorded from 1742.
However,  the act of wassailing is actually a much older custom,  dating as far back as the medieval or Renaissance period. Mummers were men that would disguise themselves in garish costumes during special times of the year,  especially at Christmas tide,  and put on skits,  sing carols,  and were general merrymaking pranksters who would gather together with a large wooden bowl and move throughout the village to people’s homes singing songs of good health and happiness to the homeowners as well as to their servants and animals - not unlike our modern caroling - in hopes of having their bowl filled with the warmed fruit drink:

And here we have
The Jolly Old Hawk & Gloucestershire Wassail sung at the same 19th century pub as the Deck the Hall video near the top of this post.  However,  for this performance you can see how we make our entrance upon performing here:

(here's another verse)
Here's to the ox,  and to his right eye,
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie;
A good Christmas pie that may we all see,
With a wassailing bowl I drink unto thee.

The villagers,  in turn,  would fill the bowl with the spicy ale...or money...or both.  Whoever did not give the drink or money,  or whoever gave too little,  the mummers would wish ill will on them,  as can be seen in another verse:

Come butler,  come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small
May the devil take butler,  bowl and all.

"Carol for a Wassail Bowl"
Or…maybe the mummers  (or wassailers)  would push their way into the home where they would find food or drink and take it for themselves of their own free will,  their faces hidden from the masks and costumes they were wearing.
Many carols have been written about mumming/wassailing,  most notably  "Here We Come A-Wassailing"  and  "The Glousestershire Wassail"  (a couple of verses printed above),   both being from the medieval period.  (There are plenty more verses to the Gloucestershire Wassail,  and I would recommend searching out some of the recordings available.)
In the 17th and early 18th centuries,  the Puritans became particularly concerned about Christmas practices degenerating into worldliness.  Wassailing was said to be turning into  “nothing short of home invasions.”
“Waites”  was a term originally applied to men who worked as watchmen and sounded each hour of the night by playing their horn.  It later came to be applied to singers and musicians who played outside people's homes at Christmastime.  From medieval times up to the early 19th century,  every British town and city of any note had a band of waites.  Their duties varied from time to time and place to place,  but included playing their instruments through the town at night,  waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings by playing under their windows,  welcoming Royal visitors by playing at the town gates,  and leading the Mayor's procession on civic occasions.  They were often paid or at least rewarded with drinks from the Wassail Bowl and perhaps some food.  In the 19th century wassailers began to be referred to as waites,  and,  eventually the more common  carolers.


Christmas Eve 1818:  The congregation at the Midnight Mass in St.  Nicholas Church in the village church in Oberndorf,  Austria listened as the voices of the assistant pastor,  Father Joseph Mohr,  and the choir director,  Franz Xaver Gruber,  rang through the church to the accompaniment of Father Mohr's guitar.  The carol  "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht"  was heard for the very first time.
The writers of Silent Night
Joseph Mohr worked in the community of mariners as an assistant priest,  which had been separated from Laufen on the Bavarian side only two years earlier.  Franz Xaver Gruber,  a teacher from Arnsdorf,  earned an additional income in Oberndorf as an organist.
The encounter between the two men led to a friendship which ultimately resulted in  “Silent Night.”   Mohr wrote the poetic words in 1816 as a reflection on peace after a summer of violence in Salzburg.  Two years later,  during the afternoon of December 24,  1818,  Mohr passed the poem to music teacher Gruber,  asking him to add a melody to it.  Later that evening,  the two men stood in front of the main altar in St.  Nicholas Church before the gathered faithful for the first time, Mohr singing and Gruber playing the guitar backed by the choir,  "Stille Nacht!  Heilige Nacht"  was performed for the first time, and it was an immediate sensation.  The two men could hardly imagine the impact their composition would have on the world.
What I have here are the original lyrics  (transcribed from the original German-written manuscript):

"Stille Nacht!  Heilige Nacht"
1. Silent night! Holy night!
All's asleep,  one sole light,
Just the faithful and holy pair,
Lovely boy-child with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

2. Silent night!  Holy night!
God's Son laughs,  o how bright.
Love from your holy lips shines clear,
As the dawn of salvation draws near,
Jesus,  Lord, with your birth!
Jesus,  Lord, with your birth!

3. Silent night!  Holy night!
Brought the world peace tonight,
From the heavens' golden height
Shows the grace of His holy might
Jesus, as man on this earth!
Jesus, as man on this earth!

4. Silent night! holy night!
Where today all the might
Of His fatherly love us graced
And then Jesus,  as brother embraced.
All the peoples on earth!
All the peoples on earth!

5. Silent night!  Holy night!
Long we hoped that He might,
As our Lord,  free us of wrath,
Since times of our fathers He hath
Promised to spare all mankind!
Promised to spare all mankind!

6. Silent night!  Holy night!
Shepherds first see the sight.
Told by angelic Alleluja,
Sounding everywhere,  both near and far:
"Christ the Savior is here!"
"Christ the Savior is here!"

On each of the six verses,  the choir repeated the last two lines in four-part harmony.
To add to the  "Silent Night"  story,  two traveling families of folk singers from the Ziller Valley,  similar to the Trapp Family Singers of   "The Sound of Music"  fame,  incorporated the song into their repertoire.  According to the German newspaper,  Leipziger Tageblatt,  the Strassers sang the song in a concert in Leipzig in December 1832.  It was during this period when several musical notes were changed.
The  “Silent Night”  translation that we sing today in English first appeared in 1863—the year of Franz Gruber’s death,  and some 45 years after the song’s initial performance in Austria,  written by the Episcopal priest John Freeman Young.  Reverend Young apparently enjoyed translating European hymns and carols into English,  and it is his 140-year-old  “Silent Night”  lyrics that is found today in most hymnals and Christmas carol collections published in English.

Christmas carols tends to be a strong musical history mainstay in our society,  for I can only think of a very few tunes from previous centuries that have withstood time in the same manner,  "Yankee Doodle"  and  "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"  being a couple of others.  Oh, yes,  the 20th century had its share of wonderful seasonal tunes as well:  "Carol of the Bells,"  "Little Drummer Boy,"  "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,"  "White Christmas,"  "The Christmas Song  (Chestnuts Roasting),"  and,  yes,  even the light-hearted  "Baby It's Cold Outside,"  are but a very few of the many from the previous century still strong today in the 21st century.  
Let's not forget the new songs added every year,  some of which also become mainstays for future generations.
Christmas is the only time of year where folks of all ages,  nationalities,  a variety of mostly Christian religions,  and musical tastes find no qualms in listening to songs centered around one day,  and sometimes continuing on for 12 days after,  many of which are performed in a very traditional style.

The following You Tube links below will hopefully give you an idea of the wonderful music I wrote about here:
To hear another of  Simply Dickens performing  "Deck the Hall":

To hear  "The Boar's Head Carol"

To hear  another version of  "The Gloucestershire Wassail"

To hear  "Silent Night"  as done by Simply Dickens:

This is the sound of Christmas.
From the heart and soul...and historical.


I am proud to say that Simply Dickens,  the period vocal group I formed back in 2001,  in which I direct,  manage, and even arrange,  continues to perform the carols listed in today's posting.  In fact,  we specialize in the old world  (and early or traditional  "new world")  carols and canticles - we sing over two dozen of  'em!  And though we dress in a more Victorian fashion,  most of our music dates to a much earlier period.
Meet the 2018 version of Simply Dickens - - -
well...aside from the carriage driver!

Here you see me dressed in my 1770s clothing rather than in my 1860s style.  I do it for this particular show for it is in tribute to the Lac Ste.  Claire Voyageurs,  the 18th century reenacting group who I spend a few of my weekends with in the summertime. 
Photo courtesy of Lynn Anderson

Performing on the streets of Holly,  Michigan for the
Holly Dickens Festival is where the original formation
of Simply Dickens began way back in 2001.

I am so proud of this group,  including
my son there in the middle with
his guitar.
And here am I,  old American Ken,  as if I were in Dickens'  London:
My inspiration comes from  The Ragged Victorians

And there you have another of  my Christmas posts.
A few snippets of information about some wonderful Christmas songs of long past.
I hope you enjoyed it.

Until next time,  see you in time.

Some of the information on Deck the Halls came from THIS page
Information about Silent Night came from HERE and I took quite a bit from an article by Bill Egan  (word for word)  from HERE. Also, bits came from THIS page.
As far as The Boar's Head Carol and the Gloucestershire Wassail,  I've plucked bits and pieces of information from a very wide variety of sources,  from on line to books to other blogs...

To read about other Christmas postings I wrote,  please click the following links:
My posting on Simply Dickens
A Colonial Christmas Tide
Christmas Music
Visit Mary Spencer's page HERE

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