December 18, 2013

Twelve Days of Tudor Christmas: Music

On the fifth day of our Tudor Twelve Days of Christmas, we will discus Tudor-era Christmas Music, Wassailing and Caroling, and the origins of many of our favorite Christmas tunes.

Caroling as we know it is a mostly 19th Century invention. However, it does have its origins in Medieval and Tudor times. Carol, from the original French word carole, roughly means "a circle dance accompanied by singers." Carols and other type songs flourished throughout Tudor times as a way to celebrate and spread the message of Christmas.

Wassailing (not to be confused with the drink Wassail, though they are connected) was a type of "caroling" performed three times a year (Christmas, January 6th/Twelfth Night, and Shrove Tuesday) by local peasants. They would "come a wassailin'" to the Lord's manor, begging charity. These were not normal beggars, but local townspeople who only asked charity on these days. When approaching the manor, they would sing:
"We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door, but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before."
A famous Victorian carol is based on Wassailing. It is aptly titled "Here We Come A-Wassailing." A modern performance of an original Medieval wassailing song, The Gloucester Wassail, can be heard here.

An antique Wassail set. These sets were very
popular in the 17th Century, but similar sets
could have been used by wealthy Tudors.
The connection between Wassail (the drink) and Wassailing stems from pagan roots where villagers would make Wassail and sing to the apple trees in the hopes of a fruitful harvest. Wassailing traditionally began with the eating of hot cakes and the drinking of cider or "Wassail" (a brew of cider, brandy, ale and spices drunk hot from a "wassail bowl"). This is followed by a visit to an apple orchard, where the apple trees are "wassailed" to insure a fine crop of apples in the summer. A cake or like-food gift was placed at the foot of the tree and splashed with cider. The revelers would then bang pots and shake the branches to frighten off evil spirits, then sing a special wassail song to the tree.

The wassail procession eventually evolved from its pagan roots in the orchards to a more Christian tradition of asking for alms, then on to a Christmas party who went caroling (or Wassailing), visiting different houses, singing and drinking.

The earliest recorded collection of Christmas carols dates from 1521, published by Wynken de Worde. One of the carols in this collection is The Boars Head Carol. This carol describes the presentation of a boar's head as part of the Yuletide feast. Similarly to us having a turkey or ham as our Christmas dinner centerpiece, so did the wealthy Tudors have a boar's head. Enjoy a version of the carol below:


The Twelve Days of Christmas is one of today's most popular Christmas songs today. Did you know that it originated as a way for Catholic Tudors to share their beliefs secretly with other Catholics? During the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were often persecuted, as their Queen and her government were Protestant.


The Twelve Days of Christmas was a way for Catholics to teach their children the tenants of their faith, as well as let other Catholics know they were not alone in their persecution.

Here is a translation of the meanings behind the gifts in the song:

On the first day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, a Partridge in a Pear Tree. "My True Love" represents God, "Me" the baptized believer, and "a Partridge in a Pear Tree" represents Christ.
On the second day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Two Turtle Doves... "Two Turtle Doves" represent the Old and New Testament.
On the second day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Two Turtle Doves... "Two Turtle Doves" represent the Old and New Testament.
On the third day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Three French Hens... "Three French Hens" represent the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
On the fourth day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Four Calling Birds... "Four Calling Birds" represent the Four Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
On the fifth day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Five Golden Rings... "Five Golden Rings" represent the Five Catholic Obligatory Sacraments - Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Penance, and Last Rites.
On the sixth day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Six Geese a Laying... "Six Geese a Laying" represent the Six Days of Creation.
On the seventh day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Seven Swans a Swimming... "Seven Swans a Swimming" represent the Seven Sacraments.
On the eighth day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Eight Maids a Milking... "Eight Maids a Milking" represent the Eight Beatitudes - days required for Catholics to receive Communion.
On the ninth day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Nine Ladies Dancing... "Nine Ladies Dancing" represent the Nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit.
On the tenth day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Ten Lords a Leaping... "Ten Lords a Leaping" represent the Ten Commandments.
On the eleventh day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Eleven Pipers Piping... "Eleven Pipers Piping" represent the Eleven Apostles, Excluding Judas.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my True Love gave to Me, Twelve Drummers Drumming... "Twelve Drummers Drumming" represent the twelve points of the Apostles Creed.

Though not originally a Christmas carol, the tune Greensleeves has been adapted as the popular Christmas song What Child is This? Legend has it that Greensleeves was written by Henry VIII about Anne Boleyn. However, many historians doubt this. Despite who wrote it, it is one of my favorite Tudor-era songs. My favorite version of Greensleeves is by Mannheim Steamroller. Listen to it below:


Most Christmas music from Tudor England was religious. Christmas, after all, was one of the most important religious holidays in Tudor England...as it still is today!

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