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from The Boar's Head to Bing Crosby

We were entertained on the evening of 24 November by Dr Richard Churchley, an historian and musician who is a familiar and popular speaker at Society events.  His subject this time was a history of some of our most familiar Christmas carols.


 Richard performed a number of them, accompanying himself at various times upon the cittern and the accordion.  There was also much audience participation.

He began with an exposition on the history of mummers’ plays – which may date back to pre-Christian times as part of the Winter Solstice festivities.  All of these plays deal with the theme of death and resurrection: characters are killed, then brought back to life.  A similar pre-Christian custom is wassailing – from the Anglo-Saxon “wes hál” – meaning “be well”.  One can wassail people, animals, fields and trees.  The custom is carried on nowadays mostly in the cider-producing parts of the country, where apple trees are wassailed to ensure a plentiful harvest.  Richard’s listeners were invited to join in a rendition of Here we Come a-Wassailing.

The oldest carol to appear in print in England is The Boar’s Head Carol, which appeared in 1521 in “Christmasse Carolles”, published by Wynkyn de Worde.    This is an example of a macaronic carol, partly in one language, partly in another, in this case English and Latin.  This song was closely followed into print by a carol initially performed at Eastertide, in the mystery play put on by the Shearmen and Tailors’ Guild in Coventry, namely the Coventry Carol, a lullaby.

One carol which never made it into the compilations is the Worcestershire Carol The Bitter Withy.  The withy, or willow, is considered unlucky in Worcestershire because, in this song, which seems to be based on an incident in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Mary uses withies to beat the child Jesus for drowning some rich children who refused to play with him. 

A particularly fascinating item of information, especially given that the day of the talk (24 November) was actually Thanksgiving Day, was that the popular song Jingle Bells was written in 1857 by James Pierpoint from Massachusetts, as a Thanksgiving entertainment: it only became associated with Christmas in the 1860s and 70s. And of course we all sang of our dreams of A White Christmas

These are just a few of the Christmas songs whose origins were touched on during a very entertaining presentation.  and as a bonus, Richard closed with a performance on the accordion of a selection of Morris tunes associated with local towns and villages – Pershore, Redditch, Ilmington and Upton-upon-Severn!

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