Wassail songs, in particular, carry some strong hints about the how the obligations upon a community’s wealthier members were imposed. The singers of this song from the north of England, early in the seventeenth century, could have been from families of labourers, or small tenants, directly or indirectly subordinated to a wealthier household:
“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 the golden ring
Let him bring us up a glass of beer
And better shall we 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 are sitting by the fire
Pray think of us poor children
Who are wandering in the mire.⁵
Children could perhaps make importunate demands more easily than adults, but the point is clear, that the wealthy household has a duty to provide for those known to them, and carol singing is a means of enforcing that obligation. Wassail singing was not the preserve of children, and similar demands turn up in the songs apparently sung by adults: ‘God send our master a good piece of beef/ And a good piece of beef that may we all see’.⁶ The wealthy did not automatically accept their seasonal debts, as is revealed by hints that they hide from carol singers:
“O master and missus are you all within?
Pray open the door and let us come in
O master and missus asitting by the fire
Pray think upon poor travellers, a travelling in the mire.⁷
This same wassail, from Somerset, takes a peculiar turn towards the end:
“There was an old man, and he had an old cow.
And how for to keep her he didn’t know how.
He built a barn for to keep his cow warm.
And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm:
No harm boys, harm: no harm, boys, harm;
And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm.
The girt dog of Langport he burnt his long tail,
And this is the night we go singing wassail;
O master and missus, now we must be gone;
God bless all in this house till we do come again.
For all that the wassail songs preserve social hierarchy in their formal respect to the masters and mistresses of the great household, there is very often a shadow of threat involved. The appeal is not simply a pathetic plea to think of those wandering in the mire, but to the ‘harm’ or misfortunes that might occur to those who do not observe their festive obligations. The last line is particularly direct, since the master and missus will be blessed, having provided for the carollers, until they come again.
Older carols and traditional wassails reveal an assertion of the right to a redistribution of resources at times of festival. A share of the community’s surplus is enforced with what is a kind of positive curse; the conditional blessing. Again, while there is no sense of any challenge to the social order here, the redistributive dimension of the mid-winter holy days would have eased resentments built up by the exploitative relations that prevailed throughout much of the rest of the year.
The wassailers’ blessings have a resonance with another festival that bears obvious signs of a historic redistributive function; Halloween trick or treating. To the British this may seem like a commercialised American custom, but it is a case of an ancient custom lost in the Old World but preserved in the New.⁸ The Halloween threat, in regard to a refusal to engage in the requirements of community solidary, is rather more overt than the wassail blessing, but the function is clearly of the same kind. The two festivals come at the time of year where many would be concerned whether they had sufficient stores to last out the winter, and therefore it fell upon more fortunate households to share their surplus with those in need. The Church may have wanted to insist on certain spiritual meanings for the holy days involved, but it is notable how incidental the theology of the Nativity is to the wassail songs.