Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols

Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols

by Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones, Bishop Dominic Walker
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Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols by Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones, Bishop Dominic Walker

Why was the partridge in the pear tree? Who was Good King Wenceslas? And what are the pagan origins behind 'The Holly and the Ivy'? Discover the hidden stories behind our best-lived Christmas carols, from their earliest incarnations in the Middle Ages and their banning under the Puritans to the carols that united soldiers on the Western Front during the First World War. This fascinating book charts the history of one of Christmas' longest-running traditions and is sure to appeal to all those who love the festive season.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752477503
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 11/11/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 5 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones is a team rector in charge of 10 parishes in Wales. Bishop Dominic Walker is the ministry bishop for the Church in Wales.

Read an Excerpt

Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?

The History of Christmas Carols

By Mark Lawson-Jones

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7750-3


Wassailing, Mari Lwyd and Singing in the Pub

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbours' children
Whom you have seen before.

Good master and good mistress,
As you sit beside the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who wander in the mire.

We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.

Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a cheese,
And of your Christmas loaf.

God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go.

The history of Christmas songs, carols and traditions takes us on a journey of over a thousand years to the present day; almost everything we sing, say or do needs closer investigation to understand the rich tapestry of convention and practice. People of every generation have adopted, changed and made traditions to celebrate together in mid-winter. One of the most persistent and curious is the one we consider in this chapter. No book on Christmas would be complete without looking closely at the wassail and wassailing. It's so curious that it has its own song!

The word 'wassail' derives from an Anglo-Saxon phrase, Waes Hael, which means to 'to be healthy'. When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote The History of Kings (1135), he told the famous story of wassail, dating back to the fifth century where Vortigern, King of the Britons, meets Rowena, daughter of Hengist, a Germanic mercenary who served him:

While King Vortigern was being entertained by Hengist at a royal banquet, the girl Rowena, Hengist's daughter, came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said 'Lavert King, was hail!' When he saw the girl's face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. 'She called you Lord King,' answered the interpreter, and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is 'drinc hail'.' Vortigern immediately said the words 'drinc hail' and ordered Rowena to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says 'was hail' to his partner, and he who drinks next says 'drinc hail'.

Unfortunately, history takes a cruel turn and eventually Rowena seduces King Vortigern, this results in the Night of the Long Knives when Hengist's men massacre the Britons at a peace accord, bringing about the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain.

The term 'wassail' at this stage is no more than a declaration, a blessing or a wish that your host might enjoy good health. Its association with treachery and murder seems to slip away, and the term wassail remains in popular usage. It is mentioned once again in the eighth-century epic poem Beowulf as a toast, it's translated there as 'be of good health'.

Since the twelfth century, the meaning of the word seems to have changed from a simple greeting and was instead used to describe an important event in the life of any community or village.

Usually held around Christmas and the New Year, the wassail was a party where people would meet and drink considerable amounts of beer or cider, pledging each others' health. To be a wassailer was to be a merry maker, reveller and carouser.

Soon after this, it became traditional to have a Wassail Bowl with beer or cider, into which fine white bread and cakes were communally dipped. In the 1320s Peter de Lantoft repeated this story, portraying people drinking from the same cup with the words 'drinkhaille' and 'wassaille'. Although this cannot be proven, it is believed that this practice continued and became widespread.

Around Christmas and Twelfth Night people would travel door-to-door giving away cider, beer or other alcoholic drinks, sometimes requesting payment. It has been suggested that this might have been a way to share the alcohol whilst avoiding taxation. A song from 1550 records this:

Wassail, wassail, out of the milk pail,
Wassail, wassail as white as my nail,
Wassail, wassail, in snow, frost and hail,
Wassail, wassail, that much doth avail,
Wassail, wassail, that never will fail.

This song was used to accompany the Wassail Bowl as it travelled around the village on the cold winter's nights to encourage the participants as they shared good health with their friends and neighbours. The bowl, which was by now traditionally decorated with ribbons and evergreens and sprigs of rosemary, was carried by young girls singing songs.

It appears to have been around this time that the tradition took another route. In South-West England (Devon, Somerset, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire) and South-East England (Essex, Sussex and Kent) wassailing became associated with singing and drinking the health of trees in orchards, in the hope that they might thrive and produce a bumper crop at harvest.

In the orchards, villagers would gather, usually on Twelfth Night, and select a King and Queen in elaborate ceremonies. The pair would then be led to the trees where bread soaked in cider from the bowl, would be placed by the royalty on the branches. Whilst this was being done, the other villagers banged pots and pans and sang, beating the tree with sticks also to wake it up from its winter sleep.

Apparently, the tradition was first recorded at Fordwich, Kent in 1585 and it appears in Devon in the 1630s according to a poem by Robert Herrick:

Wassail the Trees, that they may bear
You many a plum, and many a pear.

Later it features quite frequently in the diary of a vicar who ministered to congregations in Sussex in late seventeenth century. The tradition was both regular and widespread, taking place each year around Christmas time in the fruit growing areas of Britain.

Another rhyme begins, 'Here's to thee, old apple tree, That blooms well, bears well. Hats full, caps full, Three bushel bags full, An' all under one tree. Hurrah! Hurrah!' There is some disagreement amongst some historians as to whether this wassail derives from pre-Christian ritual or whether it is an extension of the village wassail, from the Middle Ages. The eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica states that:

What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as 'the vessel cup,' and is made of holly and evergreens and trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols. In Devonshire and elsewhere it was the custom to wassail the orchards on Christmas and New Year's Eve. Pitchers of ale or cider were poured over the roots of the trees to the accompaniment of a rhyming toast to their health.

The bowl itself could take many forms; many were very ornate, decorated with birds, berries, oak leaves and other figures, though earlier bowls were much plainer. The wassail song of the Gower, in South Wales, mentions that the bowl was made of an elderberry bough, and the Welsh Folk Museum in St Fagans is home to one that is made of a wood called guayacan or lignum vitae, translated from the Latin as 'Wood of life', known for its extraordinary strength, density and toughness. In Jesus College, Oxford, there is a wassail bowl that can hold almost ten gallons of drink.

In one wassailing song, the singers tell that their bowl is 'made of the white maple tree'. White maple is a completely tasteless wood, commonly used even today to make some kitchen utensils and it is likely most simple peasant wassail bowls were made from white maple. There are also surviving examples of puzzle wassail bowls, with many spouts. As you attempt to drink from one of the spouts, you are drenched from another spout.

In the last few centuries the wassail has changed from merely drinking the health of your hosts, and has even become more than the blessing of trees; 'The Gloucestershire Wassail' carol, celebrates the traditions of dipping toast into the bowl full of ale, but it also asks for a blessing on their animals and staff too.

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast 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.

Here's to our horse, and to his right ear,
God send our master a happy new year:
A happy new year as e'er he did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.

Here's to our mare, and to her right eye,
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.

So here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear Pray
God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as e'er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee.

Here's to our cow, and to her long tail,
God send our master us never may fail
Of a cup of good beer: I pray you draw near,
And our jolly wassail it's then you shall hear.

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.

Be here any maids? I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone!
Sing hey O, maids! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

Then here's to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

Whatever its origins, wassailing, the wassail and wassailers have quite a history in certain parts of Britain. It would also be wrong to assume that it has been confined to the south of England.

In parts of Northern England, according to the book British Popular Customs Past and Present (1876) villagers in Cumberland on Twelfth Night would celebrate the end of the Christmas holidays by meeting together in a large rooms and begin dancing at seven o'clock. When they stopped dancing at midnight, they would sit down to a meal of lobscouse (beef, potatoes and onions fried together); and ponsondie (another name for wassail or wael-hale or ale), warmed with sugar and nutmeg, into which roast apples are placed. All the villagers would pay an equal share for the food and drink.

Similarly, it appears that the tradition of singing at a wassail was considerably stronger in the north of England. The first recorded wassailing carol, 'Here we come a-wassailing' (found at the beginning of this chapter) was first published in the 1871 Oxford Book of Carols, and originated in the north of England. It is a lively piece in a 6/8 time, with close harmonies, giving the pace for the dancing.

The Mari

In Wales, the tradition of the wassail sat comfortably with local traditions. In Kidwelly, a custom called Perllan was popular. A small rectangular board was carried around the village on New Year's Day by young men, the board had apples affixed to the four corners and a minature tree with a bird on it in the middle. They were accompanied by a large wassail cup of beer. The song included the words:

And with us we have a perllan
With a little wren flying in it
He is the king of all birds.

The links with wassailing are quite clear in Perllan. However, the really popular tradition in Wales is the Mari Lwyd. The name 'Mari Lwyd' is a colloquial form of the Welsh, Y Fari Llwyd, or 'Grey Mare', and is one of the most ancient traditions that the people of Wales practice to mark the passing of the old year and the darkest days of midwinter.

The Mari Lwyd is a horse skull with a sprung lower jaw, mounted on a pole, which is covered in a white sheet; leather reins with bells are held by the leader, who carries a stick for knocking on doors. The revellers challenge householders to a singing contest in Welsh. In a nutshell, the Mari Lwyd is wassailing par excellence. It brings out the raw Welsh talent for singing, that to this day continues in the hundreds of male voice choirs and church and chapel choirs dotted all over Wales.

On New Year's Day (Dydd Calan in Welsh) householders knew that the Mari Lwyd wassailers would be calling and would plan their defence in advance. They would either ply the visitors with alcohol or food, or they would challenge them to a choral contest. A joker, who would visit all kinds of practical jokes on householders who tried to avoid the revellers, would usually accompany the Mari Lwyd party.

In its purest form (still to be seen at Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, every New Year's Day) the tradition involves the arrival of the horse and its party at the door of the house or pub, where they sing several introductory verses. Then comes a battle of wits (known as pwnco) in which the people inside the door and the Mari party outside exchange challenges and insults in rhyme. At the end of the battle, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties holds out, the Mari party enters with another song.

Some examples of this are shown below:

First Round:

The Mari Lwyd party sing: 'Open your doors/let us come and play/it's cold here in the snow./At Christmastide.'

The House-holders reply: 'Go away you old monkeys./Your breath stinks and stop blathering./It's Christmastide.'

Second Round:

Outsiders: 'Our mare is very pretty (The Mari Lwyd)./Let her come and play./Her hair is full of ribbons/At Christmastide.'

House-holders (giving in): 'Instead of freezing,/We'll lead the Mari,/Inside to amuse us /Tonight is Christmastide.'

Or, alternatively

House-holders (Repelling invaders thus): 'Instead of freezing/Take the Mari home./It's past your bedtime /Tonight is Christmastide.'

The Mari Lwyd custom was not fixed and variations throughout Wales were common. Sadly, by 1920, the custom had started to die out. Some suggested that it might have been because of the decline in the Welsh language at the turn of the twentieth century, there have also been suggestions that the decline could have been a product of the 1904 Welsh religious revival, that saw preachers speaking out against what they saw as Pagan practices, some suggest that the austerity practiced between the wars forced people to avoid such events.

In recent times, the Mari Lwyd has made somewhat of a comeback. One writer on the subject suggested that a full return to the days of the Mari Lwyd would be impossible, because the world is no longer ready for the sight of Welshmen demanding money or alcohol with menaces, being repelled by householders with the strength of their choral singing.

Llantrisant's Mari Lwyd custom was revived nearly two and half decades ago by members of the Llantrisant Folk Club very much in the style in which it was being performed when it originally died out.

Barbara Bailey, a Monmouthshire resident, has recorded information about the Mari Lwyd and recounts that the party with the Mari would sing a song or a poem of sometimes fifteen verses, then the Mari would ask, in Welsh, 'Oes bwyd yma?', 'is there any food here?'. If the answer came 'oes', 'yes', then the party would enter the house and the Mari would ask one more question, 'Oes gafr eto?', 'are there any more goats?'. Then everyone present would join in the song, whilst the Mari would run wildly around the house, snapping at any girls present, until it was time to eat.


Excerpted from Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree? by Mark Lawson-Jones. Copyright © 2011 Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
1 Wassailing, Mari Lwyd and Singing in the Pub,
2 The Puritans Tried to Kill Christmas,
3 The Golden Age of Carols,
4 The Coventry Carol,
5 The Twelve Days of Christmas,
6 The Holly and the Ivy,
7 Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,
8 O Come All Ye Faithful,
9 Angels from the Realms of Glory,
10 Silent Night, Holy Night,
11 Once in Royal David's City,
12 Good King Wenceslas,
13 In the Bleak Midwinter,

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Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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Gathers some herbs~ss