Wednesday, December 28, 2022

We Wish You a Merry Christmas—The Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival 2022-‘23


We Wish You a Merry Christmas performed by an early Platters lineup.  More than sixty singers have performed with the group over the decades and several groups still tour using that name.

Yes, you can still sing Christmas carols after December 25.  In fact, since the Christmas season lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany, it is both traditional and encouraged, particularly in Britain.  So today we feature one of the most widely sung carols which entirely omits any mention of the birth of Jesus or the tale and legends about the event.  We Wish You a Merry Christmas is instead a street begging song from the west of England that more than hints at a little extortion if the beggar’s’ demands are not met.

The song was cast in its current form by composer, conductor, and organist Arthur Warrell for the Madrigal singing group he led at the University of Bristol which first performed it in a holiday concert on December 6, 1935.  The same year prestigious Oxford University Press published an elaborate choral arrangement in four parts and under the title A Merry Christmas: West Country traditional song.

Wassailing with a begging bowl.  Perhaps these peasants and urchins got some figgy pudding from the master of the house.

While the song certainly sounds old and accurately depicts the mummery traditions of singing door to door for drinks and goodies on St. Stephen’s Day—Boxing Day—and all the way to Twelfth Night it did not appear previously in any of the notable collections of West county songs—Davies Gilbert in 1822 and 1823), William Sandys in 1833, as well as from the great anthologies of Sylvester in 1861 and Husk 1864.  It was also absent from the very comprehensive The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928.

Some similar snatches of lines from old poems or songs have been found from the early to mid-19th Century.  Two variants include;

We wish you a merry Christmas

And a happy new year;

A pocket full of money,

And a cellar full of beer.


I wish you a merry Christmas

And a happy New Year,

A pantryful of good roast-beef,

And barrels full of beer.

Although it is possible that street singers were using a version like that recorded by Arthur Warrell but that it had somehow been missed by avid folk song collectors, evidence suggest that Warrell may have built a new song from the fragments of older pieces.

By 1992 the song was so widely popular and identified as traditional that Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott of the New Oxford Book of Carols noted that the song was “English traditional…the remnant of an envoie much used by wassailers and other luck visitors,” but did not list any sources for the attribution.

A modern take on a figgy pudding.

What, you may ask, was the figgy pudding so much in demand by those door-to-door hustlers?  Americans think of pudding as something that used to be peddled by Bill Cosby on TV, a sweet, smooth desert eaten with a spoon in flavors like chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, or tapioca.  That’s not at all what the beggars demanded.  A figgy pudding has been described as an olden version of the modern English Christmas Pudding which is more like a rich cake.  Around London and other seaports, it was originally made with figs.  But they were an expensive luxury that had to be imported from the eastern Mediterranean.  In the rural West country figgy pudding was more commonly made with raisins, plums, or prunes.  There were as many variations as there were makers and it could be prepared by being baked, steamed, boiled, or fried.

Today we bring you a swinging version by the classic a cappella group The Drifters in the late 1950’s.

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