After one of the carol services I attended – with the good folk of St John Ambulance, Cheshire, at St Mary’s, Weaverham – I heard someone asking the vicar, Andrew Brown, why there wasn’t a standardised version of the carols we had sung. At a previous carol service, a day or two earlier, the words of some carols were different to the ones in that day’s service. It’s a variation of that question asked of all vicars: “Why do they keep changing the words (or tunes) of hymns?” Part of the answer is that ‘they’ have always done so. Take, for example, that most favourite of Christmas hymns:

“Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.”

Who would dare tinker with such a classic? Who would change the words that Charles Wesley wrote for his Christmas day hymn? The answer is George Whitefield, Wesley’s contemporary (or rival). He was the first to change the words of Wesley’s hymn. In fact, it was Whitefield, not Wesley, who wrote that familiar opening line about the herald angels. What Wesley actually wrote was:

“Hark! how all the welkin rings,
Glory to the King of kings.”

If you look for the original version, you’ll recognise many familiar lines, but also many differences from the version that we now sing. There’s no refrain, for example, and there are verses that haven’t made it into the hymnals and carol sheets that we use today. Also, there’s no mention of any angels, herald or otherwise. Wesley wrote his hymn in 1739 and by 1753, it had been altered by Whitefield. It changed again in 1782 when Tate and Brady published it with the now-familiar refrain. And the tune we most associate with the hymn is not the one that Wesley envisaged. It wasn’t until 1856 that an English musician named William Cummings adapted a tune from a work by Mendelssohn to fit the words of the hymn.

Still, there’s nothing nicer than a good old traditional carol service, is there? Except that the format that most people think of – the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, as presented by King’s College, Cambridge – isn’t traditional at all. It’s a twentieth century innovation! It was first held at King’s on Christmas Eve in 1918. Eric Milner-White, the Dean, had been an army chaplain. As the First World War ended, Milner-White believed that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. The idea was to tell the whole story of God’s redemptive purpose, all the way from the fall of Adam and the call of Abraham, through the vision of the prophet Isaiah, to the birth of Jesus and the visits of shepherds and wise men.

Actually, I exaggerate when I describe the Nine Lessons as ‘a twentieth century innovation’. Its use in Cambridge is rooted in an earlier service, first used on Christmas Eve 1880, by Bishop EW Benson, “in the wooden shed which then served as his cathedral in Truro”. Bishop Benson’s innovation was to have carols sung in the cathedral at 10:00PM on Christmas Eve. Before that, the choir had gone round to people’s houses to sing carols, a practice rooted in the ancient tradition of seasonal wassailing. Now, this is where it gets interesting! Some of the carols we still use today are connected to the wassailing tradition which is pre-Christian. The word ‘wassail’ means ‘be hale’. In other words, to wassail is to wish someone good health; which we still sometimes do when taking a drink. We drink to the health of our drinking companions, or to absent friends. The wassail bowl, ‘made of the white maple tree’, was filled with ale, cider or spiced wine, which the householder supplied, and from it, the wassailers would drink to your health. The correct response to the greeting, ‘Wassail!’ is ‘Drinc hael!’, which means ‘drink healthily!’

The traditional time to go a’wassailing was on twelfth night – that is, 5th January, the eve of Epiphany. Wassailers would go from house to house, or, in the West Country, to orchards, singing to cider apple trees, and making loud noises, in the hope of awakening them from their winter sleep in order to produce a good harvest.

The pre-Christian origins of some of our Christmas carols can be seen in, for example, ‘The Holly and The Ivy’, which began life as a folk song about those evergreen plants. Holly was sacred to druids and to the Romans, and associated with the winter solstice (21st December) or saturnalia (17th or 23rd December). Evergreen plants were adopted by Christians as symbols of life in the darkness of winter, but those associations predate their use as Christmas decorations. Christians also took those songs and adapted them to include Christian themes.

So, where does all this get us? You think that it’s traditional to sing ‘Hark the Herald Angels’ at a service of Nine Lessons and Carols in church. And I’m saying that what’s really traditional is to go around the parish drinking people’s health and singing songs about evergreens.

I’m being flippant, of course. Partly. And I may have got a bit carried away. A bit. But this article started as an attempt to talk about the difference between tradition and nostalgia. I have been trying to come up with definitions of the two things. How about this:

Nostalgia is a sentimental attachment to the notion that things used to be better, or at least simpler, at some point in the past, in some golden age.

Tradition is a bedrock of tried-and-tested principles and practices that give a firm base on which to build and explore the present and the future.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think that tradition is hugely important to the life of the church and of all communities. And that nostalgia is a deadly, life-sapping virus. Again, I might have overstated my point, but I think you will see what I mean. Nostalgia longs for the past. Being firmly rooted in tradition gives us the confidence to strike out for the future!

You may be reading this around Christmas, New Year, or the feast of the Epiphany. In which case, let me say to you:


(And I hope you will give me the appropriate response.)

Alan Jewell

One thought on “Wassail!

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