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Songs of Yesterday: House to House

House to house caroling at this time of year is still popular, just as it was in the days of our ancestors. Here we look at some of the British caroling, or wassailing, traditions and how they relate to begging at Hallowe'en. Also examined, some of the house-to-house songs, such as "Here We Come a-Wassailing."


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Click on the song title to hear the author perform Here We Come a' Wasailing.

I remember, when I was in junior high school, our church was involved in two-community events, taking us from house to house, essentially begging. The first took place on October 31, Hallowe'en, and the second was around the third or fourth Sunday of Advent, just before Christmas. In the former situation we were "trick or treating for Unicef" and in the latter situation we were just caroling and then, most often, receiving hot chocolate or cookies for our efforts. When I engaged in those two activities, when we joined with the youth of other neighborhood churches, I did not connect them (or the traditional trick-or-treating with caroling) in any way. Now I recognize that the behaviors are very similar and the traditions go back many centuries.

Let us look at the house-to-house tradition and some songs that involve that behavior. St. Francis of Assisi introduced Christmas carols to formal church services (Rodeheaver, p. 7). The word "carol" comes from the Old French word carole, meaning "ring," applying it to songs that accompany dancing in a circle (or ring) (Hendrickson, p. 129). These were more joyous and celebratory in nature than the Church hymns, and often sung with a combination of religious fervor and everyday enthusiasm, dating back to at least the 16th Century (Polack, p. 17). But Oliver Cromwell thought that Christmas should be a solemn time and so banned that type of worship from the Church of England between 1647 and 1660 (WikiAnswers).

When this happened, many Englanders took their songs to the streets, beginning the tradition of going door to door. Some of those engaged in such activities wore masks (perhaps so that they could not be identified and therefore avoided being put in the stocks for such brazen behavior). They would put on plays and go throughout the village accepting donations (usually of food) for their performances. These groups, called mummers, began a community tradition that is part of the heritage of those of us with British ancestry. The term is supposed to have originated with the same word in German, meaning "disguised person." The mummer plays were mostly designed to entertain and some mumming groups still perform in various countries (Wikipedia, "Mummers Play").

Similar to the mummers are the carolers in Wales who go around at dawn on Christmas morning, awakening families that invite them in for refreshments ( Other countries also have their traditional door-to-door "begging" rituals (Alfred Colle Co., pp. 2+), but let us stay focused here. On the day after Christmas - Boxing Day - in Ireland, the "wrenboys" would capture or (more likely) kill a wren on Christmas Day. Then on the 26th, St. Stephen's Day, they would carry the bird (or its remains) in a box, going from house to house chanting:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds

St. Stephen's day was caught in the furge.

Although he is little his family is great

Arise, landlady, and give us a trate.

"Trate," of course, is "treat," and usually these children were rewarded by the lady of the house (Gendreau, p. 5).

We still sing songs that are connected to the mummers, the carolers, and even the wrenboys. Consider the popular "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat; Please put a penny in the poor man's hat; If you haven't got a penny then a ha'penny will do; If you haven't got a ha'penny, may God bless you" (Baring-Gould & Baring-Gould, p. 195). Some believe this had been a mumming song originally. Similar to this one is a song made famous by Peter, Paul, and Mary: "A-Soalin'." The goal is the same: to get the master and/or mistress of the house to give the singers/beggers some treat. In this song, they also offer a blessing on the home: "God bless the master of this house, and the mistress also; And all the little children, that 'round your table grow." The chorus, like the previous song discussed, is often sung as a round: "Hey, ho, nobody home; Meat nor drink nor money have I none; Yet shall we be merry . . ." (Peter, Paul, and Mary, pp. 6-9). Finding a definition for "soal" or "a-soal" has been a futile exercise, but it is most likely a variation on "soul."

A "soul cake" was initially a treat made to celebrate All Soul's Day (November 1st), the day after Hallowe'en. When one ate the little round cake, he/she was freeing souls from purgatory, according to the tradition (Wikipedia, "Soul Cake"). The song just mentioned goes on to beg, "Soal, a-soal, a-soal cake, Please good missus a soul cake . . ." (Peter, Paul, and Mary, pp. 6-9) - and, yes, there is a change in the spelling as mentioned here. An older version of this song, just the "souling" part, spells the word S-O-U-L all the way through (Baring-Gould & Baring-Gould, p. 194). When the beggars accepted the treat from the master or mistress of the home, they promised to offer up prayers for the souls of those related to the donors, further advancing the possibility that the souls would be released from bondage (Panati, p. 64).

So here we see the blending of the begging at Hallowe'en with the begging around Christmas time; quite apropos to us genealogists as the entire purpose here was honoring ancestors. Connected to the house-to-house begging, with its accompanying singing, is the beverage of choice, particularly common in England: wassail. The drink itself is a punch of mulled cider (meaning a sweetened, spiced, and heated form of the beverage [Barnhart, p. 685]). Its name is derived from the words ves heil, meaning "be healthy" (p.1221).

Here is where things get interesting because the name of the drink is also the name of the activity - wassailing - meaning to go into the orchard from tree to tree to encourage the fruit to be hearty in the coming growing season. Those doing the wassailing take the fruits of their labors of the previous season to toast the dormant trees, encouraging them to be of good health (hence the phrase, "an apple, a pear, a plum a cherry; Any good thing to make us all merry" - also used in the "Souling/Soaling" song [Wikipedia, "Wassailing"; Peter, Paul, and Mary, pp. 6-9]). A large part of this ceremony was designed to scare away the evil spirits. The Wassail King and Queen would lead the procession and the Queen would be hoisted into the branches to place a piece of toast, soaked in the current year's brew, into the tree for further good luck (aside: this is where the term "toast" - as in "to toast to the New Year" - comes from - a morsel of toast is soaked in the beverage and then consumed for extra good fortune [Barnhart, p. 1146]). This ceremony was not conducted on or before Christmas; it was reserved for the New Year, on Twelfth Night (formerly January 17th) (Wikipedia, "Wassailing").

So how do we get from the activities of January and November (and October), centered around the dead, evil spirits, and gods of the fruit trees, to the house-to-house caroling we call "wassailing" and carried out on or before Christmas (Grant & Wilbur, pp. 154-155)?

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,

Here we come a-wandering, so fair to be seen:

Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too,

And God bless you and send you a happy New Year,

And God send you a happy New Year (Music Sales Corp., pp. 72-73).

My first curiosity about this song deals with the color of the leaves. If this is performed at harvest time, the leaves would be turning; if performed at Christmas or even Twelfth Night, there would be no leaves (at least, not on the trees in the orchard). Well, perhaps it is just poetic license. While this version sings of wishing joy to people's "wassail" (health in the punch that they consume, I would presume), more recent versions have found it changed to "And to you glad Christmas too" - though this rendition also changed "wassailing" to "caroling" (Christmas Sing Along, pp. 82-83). Another version, a particular favorite of mine, changes the tune and the words after "so fairly to be seen" to the following:

Now it's winter time, strangers travel far and near,

And we wish you, send you, a happy New Year (Paton & Paton, p. 12).

Whatever the version, the basic message is similar to the other songs discussed: a request for some treat and a blessing on the house, its occupants, or those dearly departed from the household. If you engage in caroling, you are carrying on a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages (or perhaps earlier). You probably don't don masks or costumes for your excursion into the streets, but possibly your earliest ancestors did. Some say it was the poor who did the caroling, visiting the homes of those who were well off. Here's a question that probably will not be answered in this lifetime: on which side of the door were your ancestors?


Alfred Colle Co. Christmas in Many Lands: From Poets, Artists, Writers, Photographers. Minneapolist: Alfred Colle Co., 1937. "Christmas Traditions Around the World." Santa's Net. Accessed 9 December 2010, from

Baring-Gould, William S., and Baring-Gould, Ceil. The Annotated Mother Goose. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1962.

Barnhart, Robert K. (Ed.). Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Christmas Sing Along. New York: Amsco Music Publishing Co., 1960.

Gendreau, Philip. "Christmas in . . ." (pp. 1-7), Christmas in Many Lands: Yuletide Carols, Customs, Legends and Poems. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1938.

Grant, George, and Wilbur, Gregory. Christmas Spirit: The Joyous Stories, Carols, Feasts, and Traditions of the Season. New York: Gramercy Books, 2001.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. and Expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Music Sales Corp. Fifty Favorite Christmas Songs & Carols. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2000.

Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Paton, Caroline, and Paton, Sandy (Eds.). 'Twas on a Night Like This (A Christmas Legacy). Liner notes for the recording of the same name. Sharon, CT: Folk-Legacy Records, Inc., 1989 (FSI-114).

Peter, Paul, and Mary. "A-Soalin'," In the Wind songbook. New York: Pepamar Music Corp., 1963.

Polack, W. G. "Famous Christmas Carols," (p. 17), Christmas in Many Lands: Yuletide Carols, Customs, Legends and Poems. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1938.

Rodeheaver, Ruthella (Compiler). Christmas Customs and Carols. Winona Lake, IN: The Rodeheaver Hall-Mack Co., 1942.

WikiAnswers. Accessed 8 December 2010, from Q/Who_ banned_Christmas_Carols_in_England_between_the_years_of_1649_and_1660.

Wikipedia. "Mummers Play." Accessed 8 December 2010, from

Wikipedia. "Soul Cake." Accessed 9 December 2010, from

Wikipedia. "Wassailing." Accessed 9 December 2010, from

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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