Of Christmas Caroling, Extortion, and Mistletoe

What, might you ask, do caroling and extortion have in common? Unless you’re very cynical, the answer probably should be “nothing.” Personally, I love the holidays and believe caroling is a lovely tradition. I still remember the last time I answered the front door, to be greeted by a spirited group of carolers. It was a lovely and festive act, much appreciated at the time, and we invited them in for eggnog and cookies. But as we approach the holidays, consider for a moment some of the lyrics of the popular 19th century Christmas carol, “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” otherwise known as “Here We Come A-Caroling” or “The Wassail Song”:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Our wassail cup is made
Of the rosemary tree,
And so is your beer
Of the best barley.


We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.


Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.


We have got a little purse
Of stretching leather skin;
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.


Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf.


God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.


Good master and good mistress,
While you’re sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.

REFRAIN (for alternate lyrics, see Here We Come A-wassailing)

Well, when you comtemplate the lyrics they seem a bit odd and full of curious juxtapositions, beginning with the nicest sentiments but quickly devolving into demands for beer, Christmas loaf, mouldy cheese (apparently a desirable thing, mind you), and even money to line one’s purse, all mixed in with a little bit of pathos and manipulation (“pray think of us poor children/who are wandering in the mire.”) Meanwhile, they emphasize that despite these demands the carolers are no mere “daily beggars” but your neighbors.

No less strident, but much more straight-forward, are the entreaties conveyed in one of my perennial favorites, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which hearkens back to the 16th century or so:

We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin;
Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here.

Besides the fact that most of us tend to forget the second, “figgy pudding” stanza, and perhaps are somewhat unsure what a figgy pudding is–it’s an ancient type of Christmas pudding, by the way–the lyrics can be quite alarming. Am I to understand that you are wishing me a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year (thank you, that’s very nice), but that you are also requesting–nay, demanding–a figgy pudding and a “cup of good cheer”? And you won’t leave unless you get it?  Fiddlesticks and bah humbug–that’s extortion!

So, where does this tradition come from? It has been said to date back to Anglo-Saxon pagan traditions originally, and subsequently incorporated into Norman-era Christmas customs. It shares common elements with two medieval traditions: the one, the charitable exchange between feudal lords and their serfs on Twelfth Night (the serfs providing song and blessings on the house in exchange for food and drink); the other, the ancient practice of feudal service, where a lord was owed goods or services (e.g., a specified number of knights or men-at-arms, crops, or nominal items such as a ‘rose at midsummer’). The acts depicted in “Here We Come A-Wassailing” are the benign form of this exchange between a lord and his serfs; they grant the lord and his family their collective blessing in exchange for a spot by a warm fire, the wassail beverage, and perhaps other food and gifts.  The custom expressed in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is more analogous to that of trick-or-treating: give us what we want, or we’ll make mischief and/or not leave until you do. To my mind, that shares certain similarities with some forms of the chiravari or shivaree (see my entry for the Role of Informal Law ), in which rambunctious groups loudly serenaded couples on their wedding day, banging pots and drums under their windows and blowing trumpets until bribed to depart.

So, should carolers come to you door, don’t forget to invite them in for the wassail beverage (or equivalent) –and at all times mind the contractual obligation created by standing beneath the mistletoe! To all of you I wish “good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year”. Now off I go a-wassailing.

I am endebted to my dear friend and law school classmate, Robert P. McHale, of R | McHale Law,  for suggesting wassailing as a potential blog topic. A figgy pudding to you, my good sir.


Of Christmas Caroling, Extortion, and Mistletoe — 13 Comments

  1. Loved it! Funny and interesting and festive, just in time for Christmas! Always intrigued by the legal history slant in your blog entries. Your droll sense of humor always amuses me.

  2. Really impressive blog post! I like your tie-ins with holiday traditions, ancient customs, and the law. Enjoyed the line about mistletoe as well. Merry Christmas!

  3. Hi– I found the origins of these Christmas activites very interesting– a whole new twist I didn’t know about! great post!

  4. Interesting read on wassailing and the legal origins of some Christmas carols. Looking forward to your next posting! M.C. Sharman, U.K.

  5. I’ll never look at carolers quite the same way again– although I haven’t seen any in years–enjoyed the humour and history of your post and look forward to reading more in ’12. Happy holidays!

  6. hi webmaster Ian– you certainly put a lot of effort into this post and it showed– great read! I look forward to reading more in the New Year.

  7. Hi Prof– don’t know how you think up these things but am glad you do I learn more here than in my criminal justice class. Thanks!

  8. Pingback: Happy Holidays from the ELLM, and a New Addition to the Curriculum! | Executive LLM Program

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