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Neighborhood Caroling!

Look for us in Regent Square this Saturday evening! Friday's neighborhood is TBA!

With a Wassailing Bowl, We’ll Drink to Thee

15 December, 2011

One of the reasons that the history of carol singing is so complex is that the practice and the repertoire, which today are seen as one and the same, have very different origins.  When we think of carolers today, the image of a group of singers going door to door is one of the first that is conjured up.  That view is certainly reinforced by such practice as has been in use since probably the late eighteenth century, but both the history of the carols that are sung on these excursions and the excursions themselves are separately much older.

The very term “carol” is rife with contesting associations and definitions, and the derivation of the term is full of speculation. Most scholars trace the origin of the modern carol to the medieval French carole, which was a round dance of alternating choral and solo sections. From this came the distinctly English carol, which was a polyphonic genre that consisted of several verses of set to the same music, each preceded and followed by a burden, or refrain. These carols, with texts in English or Latin or both could be on any topic, sacred or secular; could be sung in the home or in church; and its style could be either refined or popular. The most concentrated tradition, however, were those carols associated with saints or major feast days of the Church, and Christmas in particular. Today, the association of Christmas with the word ‘carol’ is almost automatic.  The earliest extant music from this tradition is found in the plainchant hymns for Christmas used in various liturgical rites of both the Divine Office, and to a lesser extent the Mass. Hymns were among the most melodic chants in the liturgy, and, as the only chants in verse form, were often the most memorable. Vernacular reinventions of these hymns and later freely-composed Latin verse forms known as versus and cantiones were very popular outside the church in England and Germany. It was this process that can be traced as the birth of the modern carol tradition as we know it today.  In modern usage, “carol” is a more catch-all term, referring to religious yet folk-like music for Christmas that is often narrative in nature and usually (but not always) has a refrain.  The distinction between a carol and a hymn is all but erased today, and, for example, the fact that “The First Nowell” is a carol and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a hymn is seemingly lost entirely.  Hymnals now include both works, and both are sung by carolers outside of the church as well.

Nonetheless, the earliest music from the carol tradition that is still in some use today dates back to the mid-fourteenth to early-fifteenth centuries.  The practice of singing through the neighborhood with wishes of goodwill is much older.   These “wassails” and “luck-visits,” like many Christmas traditions, are older than Christianity itself.  In pre-Christian Britain the practice has its roots.  Pagan Anglo-Saxons in the West and South of England sang door to door appealing for charity from their feudal lords at the New Year long before the Normans arrived in 1066, bringing with them the practice of celebrating Christmas in December.  (Christmas was celebrated nowhere in Europe until the fourth century, and its status as a significant feast day grew only slowly).   The word “Wassail” comes from the Middle English “Waes hael,” meaning “Be thou Hale.”  Not only that word, but also “health” and “hello” have the same derivation.  The association of drinking with wassailing comes from a related practice, where the ancient wassailers traveled not to homes, but to groves of apple trees to pour cider over their roots to ensure a good harvest the following year.  Soon the traditions became merged, and drinking from a “wassail bowl,” or begging to be offered a cup of ale were inherent parts of the annual outings.  As a beverage itself, Wassail seems to have been made from mulled cider or beer, and later wine, depending on the area of the country.  Most musical references feature a dark beer as the base ingredient.

Even after Christianity took hold in England, the practice of Wassailing and Luck-Visits did not disappear, and only slowly did it even merge with the growing repertoire of carols.  By the late-eighteenth century, however, the two practices did indeed for the most part become one.  The Gallery-choirs from small parishes throughout the small towns in England were the first to make what we would consider modern caroling excursions at midnight on Christmas morning.  Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree immortalizes this practice, and is well worth a read for anyone interested in caroling.  (Our name derives from the very blending of these two practices, and the spelling of Quire from Hardy’s original title for the novel.) Despite this new outlet for performance of hymns and carols during the Christmas season, the wassailing songs remained thrown into the repertoire as well, and their presence–with not a mention of Christ’s birth–alongside carols like Silent Night is not now considered odd at all.

Wassail songs are self-referential; they are songs about singing, sung in merriment about making merry.  Something about this time of year makes us want to sing about singing (how many modern Christmas pop-songs use references to carols or caroling?)  We have two such songs in our repertoire this year, both still very popular: the Gloucestershire Wassail and Here We Come A-Wassailing (also known as the Wassail Song).  The first gets its name for the county in which it was first written down, and from whence it most likely originated.  It is probably of eighteenth- or nineteenth- century origin, which shows just how strong the tradition remained in spite of the growing Christmas association.  A reference to a Christmas Pie (a meat pie from various game animals) is the only thing that cements the link.  Cherry and Dobbin are horses; Broad May, Fillpail, and Colly are cows.  Many other wassail songs, such as the Somerset Wassail, have a very similar construction:


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 a jolly wassail, we’ll 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 we may all see;
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye,
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie,
And a good Christmas pie that we may all see;
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

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

And here is to Colly and to her long tail,
Pray God send our master he never may fail
A bowl of strong beer; I pray you draw near;
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear.

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 slipped back the pin,
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

Listen to the first verse of Gloucestershire Wassail.

Our other wassailing song is still more popular, though it is just as old.   Note in the third verse, “We are not daily beggars,” which references the older practice of peasants begging their lords for charity- not as common beggars, but on this special occasion, once a year.


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.

Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.


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


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


Listen to the last verse of the Wassail Song.  

Whatever the reason, one thing about this season that seems to trump all other considerations is the desire to celebrate.  While some carols are great for their subtle beauty and messages of hope and peace, I love these wassail songs for their unbridled joy and exuberance.  And a little wassail loosens up the voice just enough!


Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town!

11 December, 2011

Our busiest day of the year yesterday was a big success!  Here are some photos from our lunchtime caroling on Walnut St.  Thanks to our #1 fan Garret Smith for some of these shots!  Also, I’ve included a shot of our ‘Flip the Switch’ performance from December 7th courtesy of our other #1 fan Mark Zimmerman.  We found some warm receptions while caroling last night, and I must say, Morningside must be a contender for the most festively decorated neighborhood in Pittsburgh!






At the Frick

7 December, 2011

We had our first gig of the year last night, singing at the Frick Art and Historical Center’s annual Christmas Party for Members and Donors.  The weather wasn’t as magical and wintery as last year, but it wasn’t as cold either- a trade-off many of us were willing to live with.  We were at full strength, and the group sounded great!  This was also the first time we had a chance to display our scarves and pins en masse and, if I may say so, we looked pretty sharp.  We’ll be out again tonight on Walnut Street for the “Flip the Switch” celebration, but in the mean time, enjoy a few pictures from yesterday evening:







Holly and Ivy

4 December, 2011

There may well be more Christmas customs still observed today that have pagan rather than Christian roots (wassailing comes to mind).  Decorating with Holly — the very source of Christmas’s “red and green” — is one such custom.  Originally it was the Druids who saw holly as a virtuous plant for its ability to remain colorfully red and green throughout the harsh winters and decked their homes with it to bring good luck.  The Romans then adapted the practice and associated the plant with their Saturnalia festivals which also took place around the solstice.  Early Christians who did not wish to be persecuted by pagan Romans would also decorate their houses in a mere attempt to blend in.  Over time, however, even as Christianity became dominant in Rome, the tradition stuck, and holly became associated with Christmas.  In becoming adopted by the Church, holly gained another important and powerful symbolic connection — that of the crown of thorns worn by Christ at His Crucifixion.

Holly is mentioned in many carols, including of course “Deck the Hall,” but it also often serves as the central subject.  Two of my favorites of this latter case are the “Sans Day Carol,” and “The Holly and the Ivy.”  Both of these carols have much in common, not only in form and imagery, but in heritage as well.  Both are traditional English carols that are considerably old.  Because each carol references Christ’s death as well as his birth, it is likely that both have a medieval origin, though Sans Day may be the younger of the two.

The “Sans Day Carol,” like many English carols, has an association with a specific area of the country, in this case Cornwall.[i]  The carol gets its name for the village in which it was transcribed in the nineteenth century: St. Day (or Sans Day), which in turn was named after a Breton saint particularly venerated in Cornwall.  The Oxford Book of Carols notes that it was transcribed by a Mr. W. D. Watson from a Mr. Thomas Beard.  The Sans day carol embodies the folk nature of carol singing.  Consider the proportion of the verses to the refrain:


Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
And Mary bore Jesus who was wrapped up in silk.

And Mary bore Jesus Christ our Savior for to be,
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly!
And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly!

Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass,
And Mary bore Jesus who died on the cross.


Now the Holly bears a berry as black as the coal,
And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all.


Now the Holly bears a berry as blood is it red
And Mary bore Jesus who rose from the dead.


Each individual verse contains only a line and a half of original text, while the refrain is twice as long.  This quality, along with the fact that each verse describes a different color of the holly berry, makes it quite easy to memorize—a hallmark of the folk carol.  The beautiful melody is also very folk-like, with an abundance of melodic thirds that outline the tonic and leading tone triads.

Click here to listen to the second verse from our rehearsal on November 29th — I apologize for the dogs barking in the background! SANS DAY CAROL

“The Holly and the Ivy” was saved from obscurity by the editors of The Oxford Book of Carols.  It was Cecil B. Sharp who preserved the tune and words as we know them, as taken down from a Mrs. Mary Clayton in Gloucestershire, and first published in 1911.[ii]  The carol was referenced before this, however, and appeared in one collection in 1864.[iii]  That collection, by William Henry Husk, references the appearance of the carol on a broadside dating near the beginning of the eighteenth century.  The form of the text is very similar to the “Sans Day Carol,” with different portions of the holly plant replacing the former carol’s various berry colors (though white and red remain important).  In addition to holly, ivy is also briefly mentioned.  Holly and Ivy were often associated with one another in pagan customs, usually as opposites.  They continued to appear together in decoration in the early church as well.  One strange portion of the text, however, is the refrain.  Illogical and seemingly extraneous, it surely was added much later than the original text, perhaps in the nineteenth century.  One can imagine this piece of Victorian frumpery added by a broadside publisher who mistakenly thought the refrain was missing.  The first and last verses, which are identical, almost without a doubt constituted the original refrain.


The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet Savior.


The holly bears a berry as red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.


The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn.


The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.


In our version, I’ve restored the carol to what was surely its original version.  You can listen to the third verse from our last rehearsal here: THE HOLLY AND THE IVY.

One final point worth mentioning here is the reversal in these two carols of the gender imagery long associated with the plants.  In traditional pagan practice, holly represented the male, and ivy the female.  Yet in both of the carols discussed here, holly is shown to represent the Virgin Mary.  One possible reason for this is that another common association for the two plants was good and evil — in both cases, holly can surely be said to represent the “good.”

Christopher Ruth

[i]  The carol also exists in Cornish as “Ma gron war’n gelinen”

[ii] Percy Dearmer et al., Oxford Book of Carols, 437.  In English Folk-Carols (London: Novello, 1911).

[iii] William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (London, 1864).

From Tonight’s Rehearsal

23 November, 2011








A New Season is Almost Upon Us!

22 November, 2011

We’ve begun rehearsing for our 2011 season, and it’s shaping up to be our best yet!  The group itself is stronger than ever, and we have a goodly amount of performances that should spread cheer to many throughout December.  In addition to our return to the Frick Christmas Open House and the College Club, you will be able to hear us on Saturdays in December on Walnut Street while doing some holiday shopping.  Our neighborhood caroling this year will take us to Friendship, Regent Square, Shadyside, and more; we’ll be sure to update you on this page about where and when we’ll be in your neighborhood!  

We’ve also added a few carols to the mix this year, including the classic “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and the haunting “I Wonder as I Wander.”  In a new feature this year, I’ll be taking some time to post some background information on many of the carols in our repertoire- all of which have fascinating histories.  If you ever want to contact us for details or with questions, or even to procure our services for a party or function, please don’t hesitate to use the contact e-mail listed here or simply leave a comment.  For now, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and you’ll hear from us soon!

Servire cantico!

Light Up Night Performance

24 November, 2010

The caroling season has officially begun, and our first performance was a great success.On Friday, November 19th,the BHWC performed on Mt. Washington during the Light Up Night celebration. A festive cheer was definitely in the air, which was awelcome distraction from the biting, icy wind coming off of the river.

At the intersection of Grandview Avenue and Maple Terrace.

We began our caroling adventure just across the street from the Grandview United Presbyterian Church. We then moved on to the lookout rectangle at the intersection of Grandview Avenue and Maple Terrace. We spent most of the evening at this junction because it was buzzing with activity and people really seemed to enjoy hearing us as they walked or drove by. There were several instances of traffic being held up as drivers slowed with windows down to hear our luscious harmony and holiday melodies.

A friendly gentleman, despite his baffling attire (short sleeve polo shirt in freezingweather conditions), was kind enough to photograph us mid-carol using our camera so that one of us would not be absent from the image. I have a selected a sampling of images from the evening.

While Light Up Night might be over for another year, the caroling season is just beginning, and we look forward to our adventures to come. Our next performance will be Wednesday, December 1st, from 6-8pm at the Frick Art & Historical Center’s annual holiday party. We hope to see you there. It will be after that performance that our traditional, neighborly caroling excursions will begin.

Servire Cantico!