Today most of us think of Christmas carols as something we hear on the radio, or we sing at church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services.
However, singing carols in many places used to be more than just singing a song at church. It was a time to connect with neighbors as people would gather together and go from house to house singing Christmas songs.
In doing research on old, unknown Christmas carols I found that it is believed caroling began in the 13th century. Neighbors would sing to one another, and the term used was “wassailing.” The word comes from an Old Norse term that meant “be well and in good health.
In England as neighbors gathered to share songs and wish each other well, they also shared warm drinks. By the 14th century the word “wassail” become associated with the warm drink shared at Christmastime. It is wine, beer or cider with sugar, spices and fruit.
Apparently as the community began to share maybe a bit too much of the wassail the Christmas season became quite a time of parties and drinking (does this sound like us today?) and the Puritans Parliament in England actually outlawed celebrating the holiday in the 1640s and 1650s.
English bishop Hugh Latimer, said that “Men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”
In New England Christmas caroling was condemned by the famous minister Cotton Mather who wrote in 1712 that the “Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty …by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling. . . .”
Growing up my church family often gathered on Christmas Eve and visited the homes of older members who might not be able to attend church services. We would stand outside their homes and sing carols. Sometimes they would invite us in to share a warm drink. When we were missionaries in the Philippines, we were serenaded at Christmas by students at one of the Bible colleges where we taught.
Even this year our church will be gathering to share Christmas carols with the community. We will gather afterwards to share warm cocoa and cookies.
If you would like to try a pot of wassail, here is a recipe from allrecipes. There are many other recipes available if you google.
½ gallon apple cider
1 (46 fluid ounce) can pineapple juice
46 fluid ounces cranberry juice cocktail
1 orange, thinly sliced
5 cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
1 tablespoon whole cloves
Pour apple cider, pineapple juice, and cranberry juice into a stockpot. Place orange slices, cinnamon sticks, allspice berries, and cloves in a muslin pouch or directly into the apple cider mixture. Bring apple cider mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer until flavors have blended, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove orange slices and spices before serving.
Here is a second recipe from the “Williamsburg Cookbook” that is served at Colonial Williamsburg.
1 cup sugar
4 cinnamon sticks
3 lemon slices
2 cups pineapple juice
2 cups orange juice
6 cups dry red wine
½ cup lemon juice
1 cup dry sherry
2 lemons, sliced
Boil the sugar, cinnamon sticks, and 3 lemon slices in ½ cup of water for 5 minutes and strain. Discard the cinnamon sticks and lemon slices.
Heat but do not boil the remaining ingredients. Combine with the syrup, garnish with the lemon slices, and serve hot.
If you try one of the recipes, I would love to know which you tried and if you liked it. (But don’t drink too much and cause a riot.)