Composing a playlist of “British” holiday folk song is a fascinating task which allows the listener to tap into the dual pagan and Christian roots of the holidays in the British Isles.
If you’re looking to “paganize” the holidays, you’ll find the rite of “wassailing”. Wassailing per se is the singing and cheering to… the trees of the orchard. Food and drink would be placed a the foot of the trees in the orchard on the twelfth night, to ensure a bountiful harvest in the year to come. The custom changed over the century to encompass friendly (and drunken) visits to your neighbors to toast to their health from door to door.
Here we come a-wassailing is the staple song for this custom, delivered here by one of England’s finest folk singer, Kate Rusby.
But “wassail songs” have not only appealed to traditionalists, as you can hear in the version by Blur (yes, Blur).
“Wassailing” is not to be confused with the practice of “souling” and the “soul cake” tradition, which is very similar except that it takes place on All Hallow’s Eve. This is mostly and excuse for me to include this song by 1960’s American folk-stars Peter, Paul & Mary, which reprises wholes lines of the traditional wassailing song. (Still, this song has been associated with Christmas since Sting released on a Christmas album in 2009.)
More overtly christian, carols are integral to the Christmas celebration of many English-speaking countries.
One of my favorites, which has been done by countless artists (the Canadian Loreena McKennitt, the Irish Chieftains & featuring American singer Nancy Griffith) is the Wexford Carol, straight out of Wexford Country, Ireland. This carol is distinctly christian in its lyrics: With Mary holy we should pray,/ To God with love this Christmas Day/ In Bethlehem upon that morn,/ There was a blessed Messiah born.
The Holly and the Ivy is a not-so-subtle metaphor for Mary and baby Jesus, whose names are repeated before each refrain “The rising of the sun/ And the running of the deer,/ The playing of the merry organ,/ Sweet singing in the choir.” Interestingly, Nature is once again very present in the carol (remember the wassail songs which were dedicated to trees.) The version below is perhaps less folksy, but who can resist the rich contralto of Scottish singer Annie Lennox? Not this boy!
With a tradition maybe going back all the way to the Middle-Ages, the Board Head’s Carol mixes lyrics in English and Latin, and interestingly makes little mention of religion except in the latin verse Reddens laudes Domino. It follows the procession of a boar’s head being served to a king and queen. The orchestration below is by British folk superstars Steeleye Span.
Good King Wenceslas, a carol following the journey of the eponymous king on his way to feed the peasants on St Stephen day (Dec 26th) is perhaps one the best-known of the bunch.
Caroling without English
Not only anglophones enjoy Christmas songs. Welsh people, for one, enjoy to parade around town carry a horse’s skull (a “Mari Lwyd”) on a pole sing songs from door to door. The idea is that the carolers ask in song to be let in, and the inhabitants of the house sing their refusal to them, and they reply to each other in a similar fashion for several verse.
The origin of the tradition are obscure: the Welsh national Museum suggests two etymologies that link the Mari Lwyd to the “holy Mary” or to a “grey mare”. Once again, you’re left to choose between a christian or a pagan interpretation of the song, although the official website for Wales calls it a “pre-Christian tradition.” Translated lyrics and hsset music are available on the National Museum’s website.
The following carol, in Irish Gaelic, is overtly Christian: its title translates as “The Night in Bethlehem” and is, predictably, about the birth of Jesus. Irish legends Altan performed a superb rendition of this carol in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
With all due respect to Burn’s Auld Lang Syne, can we please NOT sing it at New year’s Eve this year. Let us return to the song that was a hit before Burns entered the scene, OK? Happy holidays!