Saturday, December 10, 2016

Secular Christmas Songs Suitable for the SCA

(draft December 10, 2016)

In England and Scotland (the focus of my studies), Christmas in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance had strong secular components.  Yuletide traditions such as the Lord of Misrule, wassailing, feasting, and the Yule log -- none of which have anything to do with the Christian religious Christmas -- were well established by the 16th century.  It is not surprising, therefore, that  a number of Christmas songs from this era lack any reference to religion but focus instead on the secular merry-making that accompanied the holiday.   I am providing here a brief overview of the research I have done in this area, as well as specifically identifying some secular songs for SCAdians who may like Christmas but are uncomfortable with overt Christianity.

I'll be adding songs as I uncover more, but I wanted to get an initial post up while it was useful for this year's holiday.

Research and Resources

The starting place for my research into secular medieval/Renaissance Christmas songs was a website called The Hymns and Carols of Christmas by Douglas D. Anderson, which compiles 20+ years of research into Christmas music.  This site provides a wealth of information, accompanied by explanatory articles, links to secondary and primary sources, and an endless supply of rabbit holes to fall into when I should be sleeping.

Among the splendid finds available electronically through Anderson's site:

Kele's Christmas Carolles (printed in London, probably between 1546 and 1552)

Edward Bliss Reed, ed., Christmas Carols Printed in the 16th Century Including Kele's Christmas Carolles Newly Inprynted. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932).

New Carolls For This Merry Time of Christmas To Sundry Pleasant Tunes. With New Additions Never Before Printed, To Be Sung To Delight The Hearers. (1661)

Edith Rickert, ed., Ancient English Christmas Carols 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1910) and also at:

Note also that many of these books contain only lyrics, and may not give the tune or readable modern music notation for the songs. 

Wassail Songs

The word wassail derives from the Anglo-Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl, meaning "be thou hale."  Bands of singers and merry-makers would go from house to house in a town or village bearing good wishes.  In return, they received food and drink from the householders.  The drink was usually a sort of hot mulled cider, also called "wassail."  Wassailers could be rowdy, particularly if a householder refused to hand out the traditional treats.

Several period wassailing songs were written down, and survive to the present day.  Because the wassailing tradition is not related to the religious aspects of Christmas, wassail songs are entirely secular.

The Wassail Song ("Here We Come A-Wassailing") -- While firm dating of folk songs is often difficult, there is evidence suggesting that this song, first written down c. 1850, is actually far older.  At least one of the verses is identical to a snippet of a carol recorded during the reign of James I.

A Jolly Wassel-Bowl  - This lesser-known song is dated by Dr. Rickert to the 17th century.  It was sung to the tune of "Gallants Come Away," found near the bottom of the linked page.  You can find a midi of the tune here.

Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town - Music for this song can be found here.  Also known as the "Gloucestershire Wassail."

Somerset Wassail ("Wassail and Wassail All Over the Town") - Despite the similarities of the opening lines, this not the same song as the Gloucestershire Wassail.

Boar's Head Carols

Boar was a traditional dish at medieval English feasts and, by the time of Henry VIII, it had become an established part of Christmas feasts.  Several songs celebrating the presentation of the boar's head as part of the feast have been recorded.  Most are not overtly religious in nature.

The Boar's Head Carol (Caput Apri defero) - This is the most famous of the boar's head songs.  It can be dated to as early as the 15th century.  It is also known as "The Boar's Head in Hand I Bear."  Other variants of the same song can be found here and here.

Tidings I Bring For You to Tell - This song tells the tale of a boar hunt and exhorts the diners to eat the boar that the singer killed.  It was first found in a late 15th century manuscript.  I am having some trouble identifying the music that accompanies the words; in the mean time, it can be put to excellent use as a recited poem.

The Borys Hede That We Bryng Here  - Dated to the reign of Henry VII.  A pdf of the music to which this is sung can be found here.

Revelry Songs

Come Bravely On, My Masters (1642) - A song about drinking, merry-making, and tasting "curious dishes that are brave and fine."  I am trying to find the tune to which this is sung, but it also be used as a recited poem.

Get Ivy and Hull, Woman, Deck Up Thine House  (mid 16th century).  "Hull" is another term for holly.  The words can also be found here.

I Am Here, Syre Christmasse  (c. 1461-77).  Omit the second and third verses, and the song becomes secular.   "Syre Christmasse" is an embodiment of the holiday, a predecessor of Father Christmas or Santa Claus.

Ding Dong Merrily on High  - This one is cheating but fun.  Although the words are 19th century, the tune is that perennial SCA favorite, Arbeau's Branle de l'Official.  Given the fondness of period  performers for setting new words to known music, it's not impossible someone would have put words to Arbeau's tune.

Drive the Cold Winter Away (before c. 1625)  Here's an interesting performance of the song.

The Old Year Away Is Fled (1642) - Skip the second verse, and the remainder is secular.  Anderson has these words set to "Greensleeves," but I've heard it performed to a different tune, which I'm trying to find.  Meanwhile, here's a version performed to Greensleeves.

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