My Dear Americans,
it would be wonderful if you'd all join me in some seasonal sinning of an old, old favourite, one that I'm sure we all know and love:
["Put the boot in, Trevor"]
Ah! The simple pleasures, but sadly we must move on to serious matters. As you know, after the ritual mass murder of poor innocent little Christmas Trees and THAT poem by Clement Clarke Moore, the most horrible activity of the month of Christmas must undoubtedly be the the sinning of Carols. This ancient malpractice is one of the few truly and entirely naughty behaviours bequeathed to us by the Middle Ages, and the only good and healthy thing that can be said about it now-a-days is, that it is at last restricted almost entirely to the month of Christmas, whereas in the past it was indulged in at any time of year, and whenever people felt like being debauched, drunken or violent.
Let me give you a brief unbiased history of the vice and let you judge for yourself.
Somewhere… somewhere in the dim and misty past, rank with legend and supposition and superstition, someone somewhere, like Cologne or the West of England or (Saints preserve us) France, invented a ring dance, or carol, and immediately proceeded to perform it with some friends and floozies, song and wild abandon, by bad judgment in a churchyard, and by bad luck on a Sunday, and so, as the legend inevitably goes, for this sacrilege they were all turned to stone: the prevalence of stone circles in Northern Europe being an indication of the popularity of the practice and the inability of its practitioners to learn from the mistakes of others. And so since that time there has always been a tendency for carollers to be or to get stoned.
From this low beginning, however, things quickly went down-hill for the carol. Even as early as the seventh century St Ouen was writing in his life of St Eligius about the “caraulas aut cantica diabolica” being “exerceat!” Oh my!
But it’s not until the fourteenth century that things really hot up, when, for example, Chaucer thought that the most appropriate seduction song for his Miller’s tale was that favourite from the Oxford Book of Carols, Angelus ad Virginem. There it can be found keeping company with adultery and bottoms and flatulence and bottom branding and foolish hanging around in barrels, not of course in the Oxford Book of Carols; I mean in Chaucer.
And then a bit later on Henry IV part three, or Henry V as we now call him, used to celebrate his bloodthirsty and flesh-toothsome habit of knocking the stuffing out of the Froggies by having his men sin carols about it all. These men, who were by all accounts (i.e. Shakespeare's) the mediæval equivalents of our modern soccer hooligans, would charge about at full pelt, sinning the Agincourt Carol at full volume, full of lines like “The toun he took and made affray that Fraunce shall rue till Domesday”.
And then again in 1656 Hezekiah Woodward complained about Christmas and its Carols including in his diatribe such choice epithets as “the Profane man’s Ranting Day.”
The carols of the eighteenth century have been described (in the aforementioned Oxford Book of Carols of all places) as “mere eating-songs about pork and pudding.” And finally look at today’s survivals. Take for example our opening number, or again just look at the Gloucestershire Wassail
“Come Butler come fill us a bowl of the best,” (meaning ale)
“Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest;
“But if you do draw us a bowl of the small, (meaning inferior ale)
“Then to hell shall go butler bowl and all.”
And thus, from its ignoble beginnings it has finally come to this, mere begging with menaces.
So remember, all you mothers, weight-watchers and pacifists; I wouldn’t let my daughter, stomach or army go out a-carol sinning.
Kindest seasonal-ish regards,
and, of course,
Cheerio for now