WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Waits

T-minus one week to Christmas! Shall we go a-caroling?


Musicians of the lower order, who in most towns play under the windows of the chief inhabitants at midnight, a short time before Christmas, for which they collect a christmas-box from house to house. They are said to derive their name of waits from being always in waiting to celebrate weddings and other joyous events happening within their district.

Christmas-Carols by Henry Heath, 1835, The Lewis Walpole Library.

In my search to find out what Regency celebrants would sing – or have sung to them – while performing as waits at Christmas, I discovered a wonderful recording of two songs: The Gloucester Wassail and The Holly and the Ivy. While there are many more familiar Christmas songs to choose from during the Regency era (such as Greensleeves or Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella), I’ll leave those for other pens to illuminate. I’ve included links to other articles on those very songs, and others, but will focus my attention on the two mentioned above.

During the Georgian era, people would go from house to house singing the wassail song and carrying a wassail bowl, both of which were originally called waysail. Some carolers might use the bowl to hold actual drink or collect money, but most used it as a decoration, adorning their bowl with ribbons, berries, and greenery. This custom of “waysailing” was first noted in publication in the Times Telescope in 1813 Gloucestershire; however, the song is believed to date from as early as the middle ages. Nearly every village added their own lyrics to the song or tailored their customs to fit their burgh, but the general practices were the same, and remained relatively unchanged until the mid-20th century. The most popular version of the song remains as follows:

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 the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

Here’s to our horse, and to his right ear,
God send our master a happy new year:
A happy new year as e’er he did see,
With my wassailing bowl I 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 may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

Here’s to our mare, and to her right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie;
A good Christmas pie as e’er I did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

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

Here’s to our cow, and to her long tail,
God send our master us never may fail
Of a cup of good beer: I pray you draw near,
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear.

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all.

Be here any maids? I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone!
Sing hey O, maids! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.

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 pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

The second song I’m profiling is familiar around the world to this day – The Holly and The Ivy. Holly and ivy have been the go-to decorations for British churches at Advent and Christmas since the 15th century, so it’s only natural a song would arise celebrating these beloved plants. Holly is often called Christ’s Thorn, while the ivy is said to symbolize Mary and her loving support of her divine Son. The words of this carol were first published in anonymous broadsides in Birmingham in the early 19th century, with William Hone first to document the title of the song in his 1823 publication, Ancient Mysteries Discovered. He dated the origin of the lyrics to the mid-17th century.

Ancient Mysteries Described by William Hone, 1823.

Various early 19th century sources do not provide music to accompany the lyrics, though by 1868 carolers are directed to sing The Holly and The Ivy to the tune of an unspecified “old French carol.” That’s not terribly helpful to the modern singer. The music we hear accompanying the lyrics today is immediately familiar to the listener’s ears, at a bare minimum, as a Christmas-y tune.

First verse from anonymous broadside of The Holly & Ivy, published by H. Wadsworth, Birmingham, 1814-1818.

For your delectation, I present The Gloucester Wassail sung by the Waverly Consort, and The Holly and the Ivy sung by The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

And for those of a more modern nature, may I present English rock band Blur’s version of The Wassailing Song, presented and arranged by Gold, Frankincense, and Blur. So cool.

Let’s all go a-wassailing!



One thought on “WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Waits

  1. Many times I find that even given the tune name I’m not sure what notes should be sung to the lyrics. Even more perplexing when the organist belts out a completely different tune than the one listed for the selection!


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