December 23, 2009

We Wish You A Merry Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is caroling. Even though we closed John Calvin P.C. at the end of October, some of us gathered recently to go caroling at the homes of our former members, many of them homebound. I've always been touched by how moved people are when we perform this simple service for them.

The custom of caroling goes back a long time. The first known collection of carols was published in 1521. But the trouble is, so many Christmas carols are so old the words are baffling to modern folk.

How about that line in “Deck the Halls” — “don we now our gay apparel?” Yeah, the teenagers get a giggle out of that one.

And what about “Here we come a-wassailing?” Does anyone go wassailing anymore? Or even know what wassail is?

Wassail was brought to English by Viking invaders. The Norse phrase “ves heill” is a toast: “to your health.” To go wassailing involves drinking toasts to the health of your friends. The custom of caroling originated with wassailing. The word “wassail” also came to describe the drink itself, usually mulled cider, sometimes spiked. I suppose if you were going around drinking at all of your friend’s houses, you might start singing, too.

Good King Wenceslas, who “looked out on the Feast of Stephen,” was a real person. He wasn’t a king, though. He was the Duke of Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic. He was born c. 907 in the castle of Stochov, near Prague. Although the castle is gone, the church he attended still stands.
Christianity was a fledgling religion then, and there was much conflict between Christians and Pagans in Bohemia. Wenceslas’ mother, in fact, was Pagan, and opposed his support of Christianity. But he was raised by his grandmother, who was Christian.

Wenceslas’s support of the church and his charity to the poor led to his being honored with a song, but not in his lifetime. He died in 929. The words to his carol were not written until 1853, which may be why confusion as to his title crept in.

The music is an old tune (though not as old as Wenceslas), Tempus Adest Floridum, which dates from the 13th century. The same tune is used in the carol “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child.”

As for the feast of Stephen (whose martyrdom is described in the book of Acts, Chapter 7), it takes place on Dec. 26.

And a Happy New Year

We all sing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve, even though few people outside of Scotland know what it means. “Auld lang syne” translates, literally, as “old long ago,” and means, more or less, “the good ol’ days.” So “we’ll drink a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne” means, roughly, “we’ll toast the good old days.”

Whether you drink your toast with spiked wassail is up to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment