What we talk about when we talk about caroling — a small group of festive singers moving door-to-door in the neighborhood regaling residents with holiday songs — is actually the practice of wassailing, which has a history dating back to pre-Christian times. Carols, which are sung by people when they go wassailing, were originally circle dance songs associated with religious mystery plays.
Eventually the two practices merged. However, early New England carolers were closer to obnoxious trick-or-treaters than the jolly top hat-and-bonnet-wearing folks we usually think of! Recall the strangely demanding lyrics of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” including:
“Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here”
This was no empty threat. Carolers (well, wassailers, really, but stay with me…) who were not placated would put a curse on the household and might even vandalize the house itself!
As Christmas traditions were gradually institutionalized, the rough edges were filed off and caroling became more good-natured. However, taking the aura of rowdy “fun” away from caroling may have doomed it.
After some intensive research (twenty minutes on Google, if you must know, and we’re exhausted), we noticed that these days, caroling seems to be the domain of professionals who wassail by appointment. It makes us wonder… does anyone go caroling anymore just to do it? Or, is caroling truly now a retro holiday practice?
We’d like to know, Retrolanders — do you go caroling each season? Has it changed over the years? Be part of our little holiday traditions sociology survey by leaving your comments!