Thursday, December 20, 2018

'tis the Season to Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol: Musings on Deck the Halls and Other 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"  are 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 the possibly as early as the 16th century but lyrics written in the mid-19th century.  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 lyrically,  for the style,  though less than 150 years old,  also hearken back to a much earlier time.  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 meaning than what we consider as to what a hall is today.  In the 17th and 18th centuries,  the hall was not too far removed from what we call our modern-day living room.  Whereas the formal parlor in a house was reserved for the closest of friends,  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,  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 could be,  though it's more of an educated guess on my part than a proven fact.
It 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.  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 out of context of the song during the Christmas season by so many.
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 is an alternate set of lyrics, from the 1860s,  which seems to turn it into a more, shall we say,  drinking song:

1. Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
     Fa la la la la, la la la la,
'Tis the season to be jolly,
    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 by a decade.
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


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 to thee.

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:

Here's to the mare,  and to her right eye,
Pray God send our mistress a good Christmas pie;
A good Christmas pie as e'er I did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to 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:

Come butler,  come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go 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 135-year-old  “Silent Night”  text that is found today in most hymnals and Christmas carol collections published in English.

The Christmas carol tends to be the one 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:  "Light of the Stable,"  "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."
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.
Let's not forget the new ones added every year.

The following You Tube links below will hopefully give you an idea of the wonderful music I wrote about here:
To hear a traditional version of  "Deck the Halls"

To hear  "The Boar's Head Carol"

To Hear  "The Gloucestershire Wassail"

To hear  "Silent Night"

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  (except for  "Deck the Halls,"  which I plan to have in our itinerary next season).  In fact,  we specialize in the old world  (and early  "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 there you have my Christmas post.
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.

I had the information for the Boar's Head Carol and the Gloucestershire Wassail for years and I'm not one hundred percent sure where it came from, but I've posted about both songs here nearly ten years ago.

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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