Here we come a ‘trolling
by Mellissa Martinez
Despite being a bona fide Christmas curmudgeon, I recently headed out for a night of caroling. To be clear, my participation came with the promise of flowing spirits, saucy jokes and forgiveness for my off-pitch crooning.
As it turns out, our boisterous group was no different from the carolers of old. Back in the day, those meandering serenaders were downright rambunctious.
The tradition comes from the pagan ceremony Saturnalia, which was celebrated the week of December 25th long before the church settled on the official Christmas date. During this winter solstice festival, people danced around a circle singing songs. The flute player who accompanied the choral dance, Greek khoraules, led to the Latin word choraula, “to dance the flute.” This eventually passed into Old French caroler, “sing with joy or festivity,” which evolved into the modern English ‘carol.’
Aside from singing, the merrymakers also gave gifts and got exceptionally drunk. One Greek satirist describes the festival as: Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, and an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water.
Not surprisingly, the Puritans did not approve of any tradition, which was rooted in Pagan practices. In an article on the sordid history of caroling, The Atlantic reports that Puritans considered the singing to be a “great boozy offense” generally done “in the midst of rioting and fornicating.” As a result, they banned it! That’s right. In the mid-1600s it became illegal to go caroling. Like most banned practices, however, the custom developed an underground support system, in particular among the poor, rural, and religious lower-class groups.
Fast forward to the 1800s when it was once again legal, and drunk, happy singers from the countryside would stay up all night singing door-to-door angering many of the townsfolk. In some cases, they would not leave houses until they got food, drink, and even money from the wealthy. This is the proposed origin of the infamous line “we won’t go until we get some,” from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
I suggest that this line, which is still sung with much overzealous vigor today (if you ask me), is one of the only understandable Christmas carol phrases in existence. Think about it. How many times have you belted out “bells on bobtail” or “troll the ancient Yuletide carol,” wondering what in the heck am I saying?
At least when exclaiming “we won’t go until we get some” we know the warm audience on the other side of the door is nervously wondering if they have some extra cookies—or a shot of Bailey’s—to dole out.
In keeping with the spirit of the column, I’m compelled to inform readers that ‘bobtail’ refers to the style of the horse’s tail—short or knotted; and long before social media, ‘troll’ meant to sing loudly and clearly. Other unrecognizable expressions that modern-day carolers might find themselves trolling are ‘Yuletide,’ ‘Figgy pudding’ and ‘here we come a’wassailing.’
‘Yuletide,’ like carol, goes back to the Pagan celebrations of winter solstice, referring roughly to the period of December 17th to January 2nd, while the ancient tradition of wassailing refers to a drink often handed out to carolers, made of ale, cream, apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar. The name of the drink, wassail, comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase waes hael, “good health.” The term was also used as a greeting meaning “be in good health.”
Figgy pudding, in its early stages, was a combination of dried fruit added to meat to preserve the meal until the holidays. As fruit became more available, the pudding lost the savory and became a well-known sweet Christmas dessert throughout England. Believe it or not, its association with Christmas caught the attention of the Puritans and they banned it along with caroling (and nativity scenes!).
I, for one, could use a break from the incessant companionship of Christmas music, but there is not a Puritan in sight to help me out. So for this Yuletide, I’m forced to accept the endless loop of Jingle Bells, Silent Night, and the like. And, if you see me giggling in an off-pitch crowd outside of your door one night, no need to wait for the beginning of We Wish You a Merry Christmas…go ahead and break out the Bailey’s posthaste.