Yule Songs

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I had always heard that there were many Christmas songs which were Pagan in origin, but when I tried to find out more about this, I found it very difficult. As with everything else about Paganism, much nonsense has been written, most it by Christians, but some of it by Pagans. Be that as it may, I list here the best Yule Songs that I could find in English which might have a Pagan origin, however many of them are not so much Pagan as simply seasonal. I have included a little bit of information about the customs, and also I give the complete Yule Song Lyrics on a separate page. I wanted to provide a list of Yule songs for two main purposes: one is for people to sing together, either around the table at home, with games, dancing and plays, and the other is to go out caroling. Most of the songs are appropriate for both purposes. Also these Yule songs would make a nice CD to play at the Winter Solstice to dispel the gloom of winter because all of these songs are cheerful and very pretty.

Apart from the first song which commemorates an actual ritual of thanking the Grain Goddess for the grain, most of these songs are seasonal, and not specifically religious in character. There are three main groups of songs here:
Songs of Holly and Ivy, especially traditional for the decoration of the houses, and a reminder that life continues even when much of nature seems to have died.
Wassail Songs, which continue the tradition from Anglo-Saxon times of people greeting each other with a wish of good health and the sharing of drink at the turning of the year, which is thought to bring good luck and prosperity throughout the year.
Boar’s Head Carols, based on a tradition of pork as the feast par excellence, and a continuance of a custom of hunting and eating wild boar at the Winter Solstice.
Interspersed with these are songs of conviviality, to be sung by people sharing their food, fire and friendship when it’s dark and cold outside.

No. 1. This Endris Night
Endris Night means “long night, enduring night” and refers to the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. This song shows the early concept of the worship of the Corn God, here in the form of a sheaf of wheat, or a “baby” in a corn crib or manger. It is most likely that the Indo-Europeans went out to the barn at the Winter Solstice and thanked the Goddess who gave them the grain which kept them alive through the winter. The grain sheaf is set up in the barn, specifically in a manger, for the purpose of worship among all the northern groups who used barns to store their grain. I selected verses that clarify the image of the Goddess before a sheaf of grain, her own child. The song begins with a vision of the Goddess singing a lullaby to her child. It then continues in the form of a dialogue between the mother and child.

In the christianized version of this song written down by Richard Hill about 1504 as #35, we see the widespread confusion of the dying and reviving Corn God with a dying and reviving Sun God. The music is published in the Oxford Book of Carols as #39 which references earlier versions of the words to the song going back to the 15th century, and the music to the 15th or 16th century. I give here only the first few verses to show the myth; a complete set of verses is given on the Yule Song Lyrics page.

This endris night I saw a sight,
A star as bright as day:
And ever among, a maiden sung,
Lullay, bye bye lullay.

This lovely lady sat and sang,
and to her child did say:
“My son, my brother, father dear
Why liest thou thus in hay?”

The child then spake in his talking
And unto his mother said
“Yes, I am known as heaven-king
In crib though I be laid!”

There are a number of good recordings of “This Endris Night,” such as the one by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band on An Evening of Carols and Capers CD. This is the easiest version to learn the song from because although she has a beautiful voice, she sings like a human being. Some of the other versions are more ethereal if you want to put together a CD to listen to. There is a recording by the St. Martin’s Choir on A Marian Christmas CD, which you can listen to on MySpace. There is also a good performance of This Endris Night on YouTube, performed by the St. John the Evangelist Parish Choir at a Christmas Concert.

Grain was shared with the wild creatures too. It was customary at the Winter Solstice or whenever the weather is particularly harsh to offer sheaves of grain to the wind, referred to as Odin’s horse by putting them on the windowsill. This provided food for birds. Any edible seed will do, millet and black sunflower seeds being usual nowadays. It can be put in a bird feeder or just sprinkled on the snow.

No. 2. Welcome Yule! Thou Merry Man
Here is a traditional song to welcome the season of Yule. This is a mummers’ song which people sang and acted out. Some members of the group might be dressed to represent their roles, the “Heaven-king” with a crown to represent the Sun’s rays; and the New Year, dressed in holly. Of course additional costumes can be added with verses to represent anyone that would be appropriate to the season.

With the spelling modernized, it has the chorus: “Welcome Yule, thou merry man,/ In worship of this holy day/ Welcome Yule! Welcome Yule!” and the first verse begins: “Welcome be thou, Heaven-King/ Welcome born in one morning...” Christians like to think this refers to the birth of one of their gods but actually it refers to the rebirth of the Sun, celebrated at the Winter Solstice. The words for this song go back to the 15th century but without music. New music has been written for it in the 20th century by two composers. One version is by Hutchins and Welcome Yule!, thou merry man is available on the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website as an image of the music with words at the bottom of the page. Another setting of Welcome Yule! by Nicholson is also on the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website and this is also published in the Oxford Book of Carols as #174. There is a performance by Canticum on A Christmas Carol CD, on MySpace. There is also a little bit of the song Welcome Yule! performed by Seraffyn the Wandering Minstrel on a YouTube video consisting of outtakes of a hotel advertisement which I thought was hilarious. #holly

Holly and Ivy Songs

People decorated their houses with evergreens (holly, ivy, mistletoe, pine and fir) because these plants stay green all winter. These are symbols of life at the dark time of the year, when it may seem like spring will never return. Eventually everything “made of wood” was decorated with swags and garlands of the boughs strung together with ribbons, though the Pagans most likely just brought in enough to hang a garland over the fireplace. There are quite a few Holly and Ivy songs but not all have the music. They seem to describe a contest between holly and ivy which represent men and women respectively. Sometimes holly wins and sometimes ivy wins. Sometimes they both win. This contest is said to continue a Pagan tradition but it seems to be mainly a courtly convention of flirtation and social dance which was popular in the 1500’s and may show French influence on English culture and music.

No. 3. The Holly Bears a Berry
This is sometimes called the Sans Day Carol, because it was collected from a gentleman named Mr. Thomas Beard supposedly at the church of Sans Day (Saint Day or Saint They, a supposed Cornish or Breton saint), in the parish of Gwennap in Cornwall, according to the notes in the Oxford Book of Carols for #35 which has the words and music. Sans Day means “holy day” and refers to the day itself, that is, the Winter Solstice. Although the verses have been heavily christianized, the chorus retains part of its old Pagan character, and the melody is very beautiful, so it is included here. This song is also printed with the words in both Cornish and English with the music, as #91 in the Peter Kennedy book, however, the Cornish songs in this book look like back translations. The first verse and chorus of the christianized version goes:

Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
And Mary bore Jesus, and wrapped him in silk.
Chorus
And Mary bore Jesus, our saviour for to be
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly
Holly! Holly!
And the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly.
However a new set of lyrics was written in 2002 by Aes and Etaine of Preachain and they call the song A Greenwood Carol. These lyrics begin:

Oh the Oak rests in the winter time to marshal his strength
But the Holly stays bright and green the whole winter’s length
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree that’s in the greenwood, it was the holly.

These lyrics are now given completely on the Yule Song Lyrics page.

There is a recording of “O the Holly, She Bears a Berry” by the Chieftains on the Bells of Dublin CD. another nice version of the St. Day Carol by the Holman-Climax Male Voice Choir can be seen on YouTube and they sing one verse in Cornish. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any recording of the Greenwood Carol so I hope someone will make one soon!

No. 4. The Holly and the Ivy
This song was published in 1911 by Cecil Sharp who learned it from Mrs. Clayton who remembered the music for us. This song is published with the words and music in the Oxford Book of Carols as #38 and the Holly and the Ivy is also on the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the sheet music. It begins:

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

Chorus:
The rising of the sun,
The running of the deer,
The playing of the merry groan
Sweet singing in the choir.

This song also has been heavily christianized, but the easiest way to sing the verses is the way they were probably sung originally, repeating a line from the chorus:
The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily-flower
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.
The “playing of the merry groan” in the chorus refers to a gruhn, a stringed instrument that can be played by “grinding” either with a bow or by turning a wheel which rubs against the strings as with a hurdy-gurdy. The song has been altered to the “playing of the merry organ” apparently in the Oxford Book of Carols, but that word cannot be made to fit the meter and doesn't even rhyme. It is here corrected from a broadside dating back to 1811, which gives the word as “groan”. And finally, it is very tempting to rewrite the last line as “sweet singing ’round the fire” which would have rhymed with “deer” in Old English.

There are some very nice recordings of the christianized version of this song including on the Children’s Revels CD; on the Bemidji Choir Christmas CD; by Magpie Lane on the Wassail CD; and by Anonymous 4 on the Wolcum Yule CD. There is a very nice recording of the Holly and the Ivy sung by children with the lyrics on the page, and also the Holly and the Ivy is sung by the St. Phillip’s Boys Choir, on the 1997 Angel Voices 3 (album or CD), with soloist Adam Harris, both on YouTube.

There is a version of the Holly and the Ivy with lyrics by Doreen Valiente called The Pagan Carol. It is given from her website. I have included the lyrics for it on the Yule Songs Lyrics page.

There is also a good adaptation of the words written by Karen Deal Robinson, given on the Odin’s Gift website. A different rewrite of the Holly and Ivy from Willow Firesong’s Pagan Yule Carol Collection is performed apparently by Linda Taggart on YouTube.

The “running of the deer” in this song refers to the custom of going hunting in the forest on the day after the long night of the Winter Solstice. By Victorian times this had turned into a tradition of blasting away with a shotgun at as many birds as possible, including song birds, which were brought home and baked in meat pies. This became unacceptable and the tradition is now to participate in a Christmas Bird Count of which there are many organized versions. The Great Backyard Bird Count at Cornell is free and open to everyone and they have now made it global so people all over the world can participate. Their website has advice on how to participate and it can be done at the bird-feeder at home, if a drive around the countryside is not convenient. Here is a link to their data page (it’s a pdf file, very slow to download) and here is a Checklist page which lists all the birds in any area of North America (just give them a zipcode in the USA or Canada) and which can be printed out. And here is the link where the data can be added. It is now possible to keep track of the birds in your area throughout the year. The dates of the actual Bird Count for this winter are February 15-18, in 2013, but you don’t have to wait for February to do this. If you have the day off on the 25th of December, this is a fun thing to do. And if there isn’t a bird count in your area, you can organize your own.

Winter Solstice Songs

There are some very beautiful modern Pagan songs for the Winter Solstice in a traditional style. The ones listed here are not numbered because they have been added in since I originally wrote this page. New songs are being written (or are being “discovered” by me) all the time.

A modern song in traditional form that you might like is Solstice Evergreen by Spiral Dance, which is a very cheerful song that can be heard on YouTube with lyrics on the page.

Solstice Round by Cindy Mangsen with Priscilla Herdman and Anne Hills is on the “At the Turning of the Year” CD. The words are included on Priscilla Herdman's webpage, although I think the song is copyright to Cindy Mangsen. I am happy to say I first heard this song on the radio, so it's not all Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.

No. 5. Nay, Nay, Ivy
The words are given from the Richard Hill book, #99 where it is called “holy berith beris....” This dates from the 16th century but I am not sure what the source is for the music. Iwis means “I wit, I know.” The meaning of kybid is uncertain but it may mean “chilled, frost-bitten.” The version given by Richard Hill begins:

First Verse
Holly beareth berries, berries red enou[gh]
The thristlecock, the poppinjay, dance in every bough
Welaway, sorry Ivy, what fowls hast thou,
But the sorry howlet that singeth ‘How-how’?

Chorus:
Nay, nay, Ivy, it may not be, Iwis
For holly must have the mastery, as the manner is.

There is a recording titled “Holly and His Merry Men” on the CD put together for the (Langstaff) Christmas Revels for 2010 and it is a version of this song. I like everything they do, so here is a link to the (Langstaff) Revels site. They produce a new CD every year for Christmas which includes many traditional songs for the Winter Solstice, some Christian but many are not, and anyway their attitude is very open-minded to many cultures. They occasionally produce CD’s for other times of the year too such as May or September. If you ever get a chance to go and see one of their Revels performances, be sure and do it; they are very good and enjoyable. My idea of putting together lists of songs for “Revels” (see Songs to Celebrate the Harvest and Songs and Stories for Halloween and Samhain which include suggestions for plays, dances and the telling of myths) was partly inspired by their productions.

No. 6. Ivy is Good
Here is a rather plaintive defense of ivy (after the last song!). It is sung in three parts and dates to the 1500’s. The words and music are given in Musica Britannica, Vol. 4, p. 44, #55. There are unfortunately no recordings that I know of. The chorus and the first verse are given here to give you an idea of what it’s like.

Chorus:
Ivy is good and glad to see,
Ivy is fair in his degree.

Ivy is both fair and green
in winter and in summer also,
and it is medicinable I ween,
who know the virtues that long thereto:
Ivy, Ivy
It is good and lusty
and in his kind a well good tree.

No. 7. Green Ivy O
I am including this song even though I have not been able to find the music for it because the song was still sung in 1959, so I still hope that the music can be found. Also, it has been misquoted, or rather mangled in several places on the internet, so I am giving the correct words on the Yule Song Lyrics page. The lyrics were published in “Folklore” [journal], Issue 70, published by William Glaisher, Ltd. for The Folk-lore Society, London, 1959, in an article “Two Somerset Carols” by R. L. Tongue on pp. 544-545. She learned it from some old men at Taunton in 1906-7. The first verse is:
O the Ivy O, she do grow, she do grow,
And the Holly he is white,
While the little birds sing because it is Spring,
And the plough boys follow the plough.
O it’s Ivy, Green Ivy O, O the Ivy she do grow!
and then it continues with a verse for each of the other seasons. This song, in conjunction with the Nailsbourne Beast Song which was published along with it, look like they were written by Rudyard Kipling or certainly in imitation of his style. He went through a Pagan phase and may have provided “Green Ivy O” to a Pagan audience although the Beast Hymn is sadly Christian. Neither is included in any anthology of Kipling’s poetry.

No. 8. Green Growith the Holly
This song is from Henry VIII’s Book, BM Add. MS. 31922, dating to about 1515. This is a love song, but the tone is so soft that it might be suitable for expressions of affection as well as romantic love. It has been published in Musica Britannica Vol. 8, edited by John Stevens. This song has been completely bowdlerized to try to turn it into a Christian hymn and that version is published in the Oxford Book of Carols as #63. The chorus for both versions is:

Green growith the holly,
So doth the ivy,
Though winter blasts blow ne’er so high
Green growith the holly.
The correct second verse (with the spelling modernized) is:
As the holly groweth green
And never changeth hue,
So I am, ever hath been
Unto my lady true.
The original text gives the music for three voices, but only for the burden (chorus), so people either use the same tune for the verses and the chorus, or some have written additional music to sing the verses to. There are beautiful performances of it, starting with this version of Green Growith the Holly on YouTube possibly sung by Sirinu from the All Goodly Sports CD, which gives the words also. To hear just that one song, skip to 4:11 time on the video. There is also a version by Anonymous 4 on the Wolcum Yule CD, in which they wrote some additional music for the verses. The christianized version is beautifully performed on the first (Langstaff) Revels Christmas CD. #wassail

Wassailing

According to all the sources, Was-hail! means ‘be in health’ although personally I suspect that it refers to the ale.

No. 9. The Earliest Wassail (that we know of)
Wassailing is a very old custom. The earliest reference that we know of is found in Holinshed’s Chronicles, a somewhat legendary history of England put together from many different sources. It tells of the time in the year 449 when Rowen, the daughter of Hengist offered a Wassail cup to Vortigern, the king of the British in England. He was quite charmed and so they married. The text is in the Fifth Book of Vol. 1 of Holinshed’s Chronicles, originally published in 1807, p. 556. Holinshed was quoting from Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in Latin in about 1135. I give the text of the narrative on the Yule Song Lyrics page so that you can read it if you like.

Wassail Songs

Wassailing was the custom of going on “luck-visits” where people traveled from house to house singing songs and offering to share the contents of their wassail bowls with each other. There are perhaps 25 wassail songs with many variations, some listed on the Wassail page on the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website. I try to keep them straight by remembering the first line.
Children Wassailing, headpiece from a songbook, artwork by T. Dalziel

The wassail bowl was decorated with ribbons and the drink it contained is variously described as being a mixture of ale, beer, wine, perry, mead, and anything stronger, as well as eggs, cream, spices, toasted bread and nuts and roasted apples. I find things floating in my drinks to be revolting, so I’ll take the apples and nuts on the side, thank you very much. More common nowadays would be either mulled cider (apple juice simmered with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves) or eggnog made from eggs, cream, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Either of these can include alcohol but they don’t have to. There is a website put together by Conrad Bladey entirely devoted to Wassailing which gives many customs, songs and recipes. It has a lot of information, nice pictures and the words and music to many wassail songs.

No. 10. Jolly Wassel-Bowl
This is my favorite new wassail song because it is sung by women though men are included too. The source for this song was William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, Richard Beckley, London, 1833. Sandys only gave the words, but he reported that it was sung to the tune of “Gallants, Come Away” and the designer of the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website (who is apparently Douglas A. Anderson) has very kindly and conveniently provided the music, which fits perfectly with the meter of the lyrics. The words and music for Jolly Wassel-Bowl can be found on his website.

The Early English Carols book lists this song as being in “Ritson’s Book” which is BM MS Addtl. 5665, from the 16th century and this manuscript is described on p. 307 of Greene. There is an easier to read source for the words and music for A Jolly Wassel Bowl on John Speller’s webpage, which has two separate pages in PDF format, Page 1 and Page 2, if you wish to print it out. The version of words that I have here have been modernized by someone since these lyrics are certainly not in Elizabethan English. The song consists of 12 verses which cover all contingencies that are likely to come up while wassailing. Interestingly, there is a slight implication that the wassail bowl itself could be used to “espy” the future. I don’t know of any performances of this song, which I hope will change soon. The song begins:

A jolly wassel-bowl,
A wassel of good ale,
Well fare the butler’s soul,
That setteth this to sale
Our jolly wassel.
No. 11. Gloucestershire Wassail
This begins “Wassail, wassail, all over the town!” The words and music are published in the Oxford Book of Carols #31; and in English Folksongs by Cecil Sharp, p. 106, with notes on page xv. In this song, everyone wassails the cows, to make sure that they are happy and give lots of milk, though it’s probably a good thing that the cows can’t understand the words, considering the second verse.
Verse 2
So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek,
Pray god send our master a good piece of meat,
And a good piece of meat that may we all see,
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

There are several good recordings, among them performances by the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble; the Argonaut Salem Boys Choir and by Magpie Lane on their Wassail CD. Also there is a good one by the Albion Christmas Band, on the Midwinter CDs and a good performance of the Gloucestershire Wassail can be heard on YouTube performed by Chanticleer (not the all-male group), from the Old Fashioned Christmas album, 1995.

No. 12. Gower Wassail
This starts out “A wassail, a wassail, throughout all this town....” This song was recorded from the singing of Phil Tanner from Gower who was apparently the person who remembered it for everyone. It is different from the other wassails because of the chorus “Fol de dol,” etc. The words to this song are given on the Revels Christmas CD liner notes, and on the Lomax: England CD liner notes. I was able to find the music for the Gower Wassail on Conrad Bladey’s website (scroll down).

There are recordings of Phil Tanner singing this song available various places, including the MidWinter CD’s. The song has also been recorded by Charley Bate on the Alan Lomax: Songs of Christmas CD; by Steeleye Span on the Ten Man Mop CD and on the Revels Christmas CD. There is a good version of the Gower Wassail sung by the WACO High School chorus at a Christmas Concert on December 13, 2009 on YouTube.

There are additional verses in the liner notes to the Lomax: Songs of Christmas CD, one of which shows clearly one purpose of a Luck Visit:

Here’s a health to our Colley and her crooked horn,
May God send her master a good crop of corn,
Of barley and wheat, and all sorts of grain.
May God send her mistress a long life to reign.

But before you think everyone is deeply concerned about the farmer’s livestock, consider that the animal with a “crooked horn” is a euphemism for a still, so they are perhaps mainly interested that there will be lots of hard liquor by next year. Oh well! All together there are too many wassail songs even to list here, so I will just mention a few more.

The Somerset Wassail begins: “Wassail, and wassail, all over the town....” and it has the chorus: “For it’s your wassail, and it’s our wassail! And it’s joy be to you, and a jolly wassail!” The words and music for this song are published in the Oxford Book of Carols, #32 and also by Cecil Sharp who collected it from the Drayton Wassailers in the late 1800’s. There is a good recording by Magpie Lane on their Wassail CD available on MySpace, and one by John Kirkpatrick on the MidWinter CDs, with drums which is a refreshingly dynamic way of performing folksongs.

Others are: the Sugar Wassail, which begins: “A wassail, a wassail, a wassail, we’ll begin with sugar, spice and cinnamon...”; and the Jacobstowe Wassail, which begins: “Wassail! wassail! good master and mistress...” Both of those are performed by Waterson:Carthy on the Holy Heathens CD, which is a great CD. The Can Wassel is sung in Cornish, with “Jolyf Wassel” in the refrain and was published in the Peter Kennedy book. The first line of this song is “Nadelek yuu gyllys ha’n bledhen noweth ow-toos...” and it is performed by Anonymous 4 on the Wolcum Yule CD, singing in Cornish. There are also Wassail Songs that begin “Here we come a-wassailing” and they are given at the end of this list. And before we finish with Wassail Songs, people wassailed the apple trees, too. #boar

Feasting Songs on Mothernight

The ancient practice of celebrating Modranacht is referred to by Bede, but in typical useless fashion he has nothing intelligent to say about it. A possible remnant of the ancient ritual may be seen in the song “This Endris Night” given at the beginning of this list.
Marzipan pigs and other traditional treats at Yule time, for sale at World Market

Many early authors such as Jacob Grimm (Teutonic Mythology, pp. 213-215) and James Frazer (Golden Bough, Vol. 7, pp. 300-302) felt that food in the shape of boars, or actual boars were an essential part of the menu on the Winter Solstice, and the custom continues or was recently reported in a number of Germanic-speaking countries. Certainly the Boar’s Head Carols which follow were a very important part of the festivities among English-speaking people in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. They are believed to continue a Pagan tradition of sacrificing a boar or pig at Yule, but really people feasted on pork because it’s delicious. However there are some facts that do support a relation between the Winter Solstice or Yule, the Goddess Frigg, and boar or pork as the special food of the season.

Boar’s Head Carols

There are at least six Boar’s Head Carols and the oldest dates to 1504 but not all have music associated with them. These songs announce the presentation of a boar’s head for dinner as a delicious treat at the winter holidays, and I guess you had to be a starving college student to appreciate this. The music has been conserved for some of the songs because they were sung at various colleges including the Queen’s College at Oxford (see next). Another Boar’s Head Carol, known as the Exeter version, is in the form of a motet for 3 voices (!). This is published as #79 in Musica Britannica, Vol. 4 but this one is christianized. Two of the others describe an actual boar hunt which preceded the presentation at dinner but they don’t have music. Wild boars are extinct in England but it is still possible to go boar-hunting on horseback in northern France if you are very crazy and very rich. More recent songs continue to celebrate pork and many other foods for dinner.

No. 13. Boar’s Head Carol
The Boar’s Head Carol that is most well known is still sung each year by the students at Queen’s College, Oxford. The earliest version was written down by Richard Hill as #42, with the words only, dating to about 1504. There is also a version by Wynken de Woorde, dating to 1521 which is quoted by Chappell, on p. 758, also with the words only. Versions of this are printed by Chappell, p. 757 (Rimbault version); and in the Oxford Book of Carols as #19 with the words and music and a translation of the Latin. Here is the beginning of the Queen’s College, Oxford 1811 version:

The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary,
And I pray you, my masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio.
(with the chorus in Latin:)
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes domino.
The Oxford version is recorded in several places including by the Chieftains, on the Bells of Dublin CD, and also by Magpie Lane on the Oxford Ramble CD (the last one on MySpace). My favorite recording is by the Teesside Fettlers on the MidWinter CDs. There are several good versions on YouTube including the Boar’s Head Carol, well sung by the Gregg Smith Singers with the lyrics on the page, and an entire little film including the Boar’s Head Carol performed by Seraffyn the Wandering Minstrel which I mentioned earlier and which shows (or imagines) how the holidays were celebrated in medieval times with music and food and performances and people falling in the fireplace.

Just for fun, here is a link to a recipe for Yule Pies, here called Heathen Cakes, from a medieval German cookbook. These are delicious little meat pies made from pork, beef and apples. This may be the original version of Mincemeat Pies, but in any case they are very good---I have made them myself. So now that the food is on the table, here are some songs to sing for the pleasure of the company.

No. 14. Deck the Halls or Nos Galan Gaeaf
This was originally a Welsh song, and although people say it was sung at the Celtic New Year (because the title Nos Galan Gaeaf means “New Year” which was set to Samhain, Nov. 1st), the copy I have been able to find is a love song, probably associated with spring. The Welsh version is published in the Story of the Carol by Edmondstoune Duncan which is on the internet. This book has a lot of interesting material in it, although the scholarship may not be all that dependable. In any case the words were translated or rewritten in English and have become so popular as a traditional Christmas song that they are included here. The lyrics are:

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
’Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la, etc.
Don we now our gay apparel,*1
Fa la, etc.
Troll the ancient Yuletide carol,
Fa la, etc.

See the blazing Yule before us,*2
Strike the harp and join the chorus,
Follow me in merry measure
While I tell of Yuletide’s treasure.*3

Fast away the old year passes,
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Sing we joyous all together,*4
Heedless of the wind and weather.

*1 In some versions this line reads “Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel”
*2 “See the flowing bowl before us”
*3 “While I tell of beauty’s treasure”
*4 “Laughing, quaffing all together”
These alternative words are attributed to John Hughes, and given from http://community.livejournal.com/song_archive/65316.html. This seems to be the original version of the song in English but I guess it got cleaned up by somebody.

The song is recorded by the Madacy Choir and also on the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin CD, where is is called “’Tis the Season.” The Bells of Dublin CD is really nice because it also has a set of dance music which is quite infectious, even though I don’t know the dances. The Chieftains are really good professional musicians, but they always sound like they are having fun. It was difficult to find a good version of this song on YouTube; this version of Deck the Halls sung by the Canterbury Singers sounds great, but it has dreadful cartoons in the video. Listen to it with your eyes closed.

No. 15. The Twelve Days of Christmas
There are many different versions of this song, but I have given the lyrics that I knew best, which are apparently the same ones collected by Alan Lomax. People sing this song around the table and each time another day is added, the person who is singing has to go back and sing all the previous days. This requires a cumulative memory, and when someone makes a mistake, it’s funny. If they forget a part they have to pay a “forfeit” which can apparently be anything they have in their pockets such as a nut or candy. I don’t think I ever found a copy of the music for this on the internet but it’s in a lot of old glee books. It starts out:

On the First Day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

On the Second Day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Two turtledoves
And a partridge in a pear tree.

On the Third Day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Three French Hens
Two turtledoves
And a partridge in a pear tree.
and so on....

The rest of the words are given on the Yule Song Lyrics page. I found a good recording by the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble on their Christmas CD, and there is a very pretty recording on YouTube of the Twelve Days of Christmas by the Burl Ives choir.

No. 16. We wish you a Merry Christmas or the Figgy Pudding Song
Figgy pudding was a very elaborate dish of bread pudding boiled in a cloth for several hours. It includes figs (or plums or raisins) and was brought out during dinner and set on fire with brandy. Figs are not really a common fruit in England so it seems like the special food might have been named for Frigg, who was the tutelary Goddess of the frigid time and whose distaff is the constellation of Orion, the most prominent constellation in the winter skies in northern countries.

The source of the song is unknown, though it is said to date back to the 16th century. However neither the words nor the tune sound like they are that old. Americans know the first verse, but I hadn’t heard the figgy pudding verses until I heard Craig Ferguson singing it on TV with Pepe the Prawn and now preserved forever on YouTube. I like this song because it is quite raucous. It starts out “We wish you a Merry Christmas, ...” and then it has the chorus: “Good tidings we bring, to you and your kin/ We wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!” The second verse begins “Now bring us a figgy pudding...” and so on, becoming increasingly belligerent. By the third verse, everyone is shouting “We won’t go until we get some!” I think it’s hilarious. I found it very difficult to find the written music but it’s on this virtualsheetmusic website. Apparently some people disapprove of its character, because it’s not in the Oxford Book of Carols.

The song is recorded very beautifully by the Eugene Vocal Arts Ensemble and also by Enya on YouTube, with pretty pictures of snow. It is also sung by a family on Rick Steve’s European Christmas podcast while they are making mincemeat pies. This program showed traditional ways of celebrating Christmas in several European countries and the DVD was available for sale on his website, but you can now watch on YouTube, try Rick Steve's European Christmas in 10 Parts. Mincemeat pies are another traditional dessert for the holidays. They are made in muffin tins with a pastry top and bottom, originally made with suet (beef fat) and dried fruit, but now usually made with dried fruit and nuts.

Remembering the Dear Departed
It is customary at dinner to remember those who are not present by raising a glass to them and remembering their names. Among the Romans and Greeks, wine would be poured into the ground as an offering to the dead; the Germanic-speaking people were more practical (and had wooden floors), so they drank theirs. The cup of wine (or ale or mead) was referred to as a Minne cup or memory cup in Old Norse, and a minne cup was drunk to remember the dead while singing their praises according to Skaldic verse. In Germany during the Middle Ages a minnesange “memory song” became an expression of courtly love so that the term came to be used in German to refer to love songs. Nowadays, people still remember the dead with a toast, however we are no longer able to sing their praises.

Parting Company
When it was time to thank your host and to say goodbye to the holiday and the season, various songs, sometimes variations on the wassailing songs, were sung. Originally people sang them on Twelfth Night which was well into January, but since the Protestant Reformation in England, the holiday season is much more compressed, so these songs could be sung when dinner is over. There are two more well-known Wassail songs which people sang when they went wassailing from house to house. For these two songs, the verses have the same tune as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” but the choruses are different in both words and tunes.

No. 17. Yorkshire Wassail Song
This song begins “We’ve been a while a-wandering” and has the chorus “For it’s Christmas time...” It is sometimes called “God Bless the Master of this House” because that is the first line in some of the versions. I found the music for the Yorkshire Wassail Song on the Wassail website of Conrad Bladey. This song is beautifully performed by the (Langstaff) Revels choruses, especially the children. This is on several of their Christmas CDs and there is a performance of the Yorkshire Wassail by the Casterbridge Children’s chorus from an actual Revels stage performance. There is also a more formal version of the Yorkshire Wassail by Robert Shaw, both on YouTube.

No. 18. The Wassail Song
The other song begins “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green...” and has the chorus which begins “Love and joy come to you...” This song is also sometimes called “God Bless the Master of this House,” because that is the first line in some versions. The words and music for “Here we come a-wassailing...” are published in the Oxford Book of Carols #15, and also as The Wassail Song on the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website. The lyrics have been rewritten a little by Hilda Marshall, so that you can sing “We bless you and wish you a happy New Year” in the chorus, if you prefer. The first verse is:

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wandering,
So fair to be seen.

Chorus:
Love and joy come to you
And to you your wassail too,
And god bless you and send you a happy New Year,
May god send you a happy New Year.

The other verses are given on the Yule Song Lyrics page, but this is my favorite verse...
God bless the master of this house
And bless the mistress, too
And all the little children
That round the table go.
There are recordings of this song on the (Langstaff) Children’s Revels CD, and also by Magpie Lane on their Wassail CD. There is a very cheerful, though xianized version of Here We Come A-Wassailing on YouTube, which is the finale of Orla Fallon's Celtic Christmas. A completely different version of the Wassail Song with snow can also be heard on YouTube and it was made by someone in Upstate New York and it seems like a quiet reminder of the season.

Additional songs often sung around the Winter Solstice are:
Wren King Songs, which are mainly Celtic, and
Apple Tree Wassails

So I hope you like these songs and that you have a very Happy Yule and Winter Solstice!

References for Yule Songs in English

Most of these references are Christian and are useful for the words and music but not for anything else.

Richard Hill, Songs and Carols and other Misc. Poems from the Balliol Ms. 354, Richard Hill’s commonplace Book, ed. by Roman Dyboski, London, 1908, EETS, extra series no. 101. Though this book, written in the 1500’s, only includes words, many of the tunes are known from other sources.
Oxford Book of Carols, ed. by Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, Oxford University Press, London, 1928, 1964.
Hymns and Carols of Christmas website is at www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com. This has a table of contents that lists the titles in alphabetical order and often gives a digital image of the earliest printed version of the music.
Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700, published by Edith Rickert, Chatto & Windus, London, 1914, published in facsimile as the Ancient English Christmas Carols section on the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website.
• “Two Somerset Carols” article by Ruth L. Tongue, pp. 544-545 in “Folklore” (journal), Vol. 70, (no editor listed) published for the Folk-lore Society by William Glaisher, Ltd., London, 1959.
Popular Music in the Olden Time, by W. Chappell; Cramer, Beale & Chappell, London, 1859.
English Folksongs by Cecil Sharp, Novello and Company, Ltd., London, 1920, 1959; Vol. I & II in the same volume but with separate tables of contents.
Early English Carols by Richard L. Greene, 2nd ed. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977.
Folksongs in Britain and Ireland, ed. by Peter Kennedy, Oak Publications, NY 1984.
The Golden Bough, by James George Frazer, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 vol. edition).
Medieval Carols, transcribed and edited by John Stevens, Stainer & Bell, Ltd., London, 1952, in Musica Britannica, Vol. 4.
The Winter Solstice by John Matthews, Quest Books, Wheaton, IL, 1998.
The Story of the Carol by Edmondstoune Duncan, The Walter Scott Publishing Co., London & NY, 1911, available on the net at www.archive.org
Wassail Page of Conrad Bladey at http://www.cbladey.com/wassail.html
Carols Old and Carols New, by Charles L. Hutchins, Parish Choir, Boston, 1916.
The English Carol Book, Second Series by Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer; A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., London, 1913.
• The folkinfo.org site put up by Jon Freeman has many songs with music.

This page was published at pierce.yolasite.com/yulesongs but Yola went out of business so it has been migrated here.

© 2007, last updated 11/28/2012, at piereligion.org/yulesongs.html