Every year at Christmas, we sing special songs of the season. Christmas carols are a much loved tradition, as are caroling parties and other festive song opportunities. However, do we really know what some of the lyrics we are singing mean? A little research at your Abilene Public Library turned up some interesting facts and definitions.
"The Wassail Song" (Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves go green) is a favorite of carolers. But, what is wassail? According to the The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, wassail is both the toast to someone's good health and good fortune, and the drink the toast is made with. That drink is usually ale, or with wine spiced with roasted apples and sugar.
Wikipedia says the custom actually originated in the cider-producing counties in the South West of England (primarily Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire) or South East England (Kent, Sussex, Essex, and Suffolk). "Wassailing refers to a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive. The purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the autumn."
We all enjoy singing "The First Noel" (or Norwell, as it's printed in some hymnals) and remembering "The First Noel, the Angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay." The dictionary says "Noel is an alternative word for Christmas. It first entered the English language in the 14th century. The word comes from Middle English noel, which derives from the Old French word noel and its more common form nael. The English spelling "Noel" is taken directly from modern French, which also derives from the Old French. The ultimate Latin origin is the phrase natalis (dies), "(day) of birth"." So, the angels were wishing Jesus a Happy Birthday and the shepherds got to witness it.
A hearty favorite carol is "Good King Wenceslas" who "looked out, on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even." St. Stephen's Day is December 26th, also known as Boxing Day. This song heralds the good deed of the Duke of Bohemia (907-935) who braved bitter winter weather to give money and food to a poor man out gathering firewood. This, as best history can record of so long ago, was typical of Wenceslas, who was later canonized by the Catholic Church and is considered the patron saint of Bohemia.
Last, but not least, a lesser known carol "Christmas is Coming" has been handed down through time as both a song and nursery rhyme. The entire song is very short and is sometimes sung as a round. "Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat, Please put a penny in the old man's hat. If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do, If you haven't got a ha'penny, Then God bless you."
A ha-penny is short for half penny, which was "a coin was worth 1/480th of a pound sterling. At first in its 700 year history it was made from silver but as the value of silver increased, the coin was made from base metals. It was finally abandoned in 1969 as part of the process of decimalising the British currency." Another way of saying it is ha'pence.
So now, you know perhaps more than you wanted to know about some of the carol lyrics you sing each Christmas season! If you'd like to do more research like this, your Abilene Public Library has some interesting books and sources to use, and we hope to see you as the holiday season continues. May you have the happiest of holiday seasons!
Article Contributed by Janet Bailey, Technical Services Manager