It would be valid to suppose that carols and wassails point to egalitarian customs of pre-Christian societies. All over the world, redistributive festivals and traditions can be found in pre-class societies, even those with incipient social hierarchies. For example, the ‘big men’ of Melanesian and Polynesian societies are known to have enhanced their status with great feasts. The egalitarian First Nations of British Columbia famously celebrated potlaches in which people competed to give away the most to their neighbours. In the less generous context of a class society structured by the Christian Church, wassailers and trick-or-treaters had to insist more forcefully upon their ancient redistributive rights.
Exploiting classes are never glad to have to give back any of the surplus they have squeezed out of the labour of subordinated social groups, but redistributive customs endured for long periods of time because they contributed to social stability. The kind of social contract involved in these traditions in Western Europe began to break down most markedly in the seventeenth century, as capitalist relations of production became increasingly dominant, particularly in England. The village elite began to withdraw from practices of community solidarity, which appeared more and more as a burden rather than a necessity for maintaining social harmony.
This process lay at the root of the surge in the persecution of witches in this period. Trials for witchcraft were virtually unknown during the Middle Ages, when the Church was adamant that the Devil could only cause spiritual, not physical, harm. However, from the fifteenth-century onwards the elites gradually became convinced otherwise, and together with the break down in redistributive social obligations at the village level, the stage was set for the outbreaks of witch hunting. Poor old women were most often found to be witches because they were most likely to need aid from wealthier members of their communities. If help was refused, they were also more liable to have no other recourse than to resort to a curse.⁹ The mass trials of witches have complex causes; one argument suggests that witch trials in Scotland were an epiphenomena of state formation. Even here, the underlying problem at the community level comes back to the issue of poor women being resented for making demands on their neighbours.¹⁰
Wassailing was not witchcraft, but as pre-capitalist relations were broken up, with such violent repercussions, it would have been harder and harder to maintain redistributive customs. Carols with demands for food and drink survive for other times of the year than Christmas, from May Day and Easter for example,¹¹ but it is likely that the specific nature of the Christmas festival made it harder to suppress wassailing than similar practices at other times of the year. One fifteenth-century carol piles on the social message with many verses contrasting the poverty of Christ’s family with the surrounding riches, from which they are excluded:
“In all the lighted city
Where rich men welcome win
Will not one house for pity
Take two strangers in?¹²
The wassail songs, some of which survive in nineteenth-century versions, therefore represent the last remains of the social redistributive principle of the holiday. The history of class society is one of a progressive stripping away of collective social forms and egalitarian customs, until with capitalism, the last embers of pre-class social relations are extinguished.
There is an upside to this, however. We may no longer be able to make demands on the ruling class for seasonal cheer, but in turn, we are no longer obligated to them for the rest of the year. In purging Christmas of any social meaning, capitalism adds another dimension to the historical dynamic by which it creates its own gravediggers.
¹ The Oxford Book of Carols, ed. Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw (Oxford 1928), no. 6, p.19.
² Ibid. no. 31, p. 63.
³ Ibid. no. 5, p. 17.
⁴ Ibid. no. 1, p.5.
⁵ Ibid. no. 15, pp.32-3.
⁶ Ibid. no.31, p.62.
⁷ Ibid, no. 32, pp.64-5.
⁸ See Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (London 1990), p.184.
⁹ See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London 1971), chs.14-18.
¹⁰ See Christine Larner,Enemies of God: The Witch Hunt in Scotland (Baltimore 1981),pp.97-8.
¹¹ Book of Carols, no. 49, pp.100-1, and no.94, p.204.
¹² Ibid. no.91, p.195.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He has been a Stop the War and anti-austerity activist in north London for some time. He is a published historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, a social history of medieval wonder tales.