“Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green, Here we come a-wandering, so fair to be seen.”
We entered from the back of the school auditorium at a steady march while clutching in our hands small lit candles and immediately scanned the audience of generously smiling parents to find the set of our own. Etched in my mind is the elementary school Christmas Concert and the song that I did not understand until many years later when I looked up the meaning of wassailing to find it meant revelous drinking!…which brings me to this posting.
When I asked a few people if they knew the meaning of some of the common words in Christmas songs, the wide response was a timid guess at best. So here you go!
- What is wassailing?
The root of wassailing is a pre-Christian fertility rite where villagers went through orchards at mid-winter singing and shouting loudly to drive out evil spirits, and pouring cider on the roots of trees to encourage fertility. Rooted in the west county of England, families of farmers would sing a special Wassail song while the men fired guns in the trees, and banged pots to ward off the bad spirits and encourage a bountiful crop the following year.
The old Saxon word “wassail” was a drinker’s greeting: “Was Haile” “Your health.” The wassail drink was made from ale, roasted apples, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. It was served hot from a bowl. Later the word “wassailing” was used by the English for any kind of Christmas celebration where drinking occurred.
- Why Christmas Carol and not Christmas Betty or Christmas Midge?
To ‘carol’ once meant to dance in a ring or circle; it may be derived from the Greek word ‘choraulein.’ Eventually words and music were added to accompany the dance, and the word began to refer to the music instead of the dance itself. The word Carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy! Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived.
- What does the word “Noel” mean?
There are two schools of thought on this. Some believe that the word comes from the Latin natalis (birthday) and refers to Jesus’ birthday. Others believe that it derives from the French nouvelles (news), and so refers to the good news (the Gospel) of Christ’s birth, which the angels announced on the first Christmas when Christ was born. The second meaning seems to be the way the word is used in most carols, such as the “First Noel,” that is, the first proclamation of the good news.
- What does the word “Yule” mean?
The word comes from Anglo-Saxon word geol (feast). Since in preChristian times, one of the great feasts was the celebration of the winter solstice, the whole month of December was called geola (feast month). It was probably later applied to the feast of Christmas. Others believe that yule comes from the Old Germanic word Jol, meaning a turning wheel referring to the “sun wheel” rising after the winter solstice.
- What is the meaning of ‘Excelsis Deo’? [glawr-ee-uh in ek-sel-sis dey-oh, glohr-]
A few years back a friend in a choir turn to me and asked, What does Excelsis Deo mean? “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” is Latin meaning, “Glory in the highest to God,” and in the English version, “Glory be to God onhigh.”