• Proto-Indo-European Religion
• Indo-European Languages
• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
• Harvest Songs
• Halloween Songs
• Yule Songs
• Wren King Songs
• Apple Tree Wassails
|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 some of the 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 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. There are 18 songs here, numbered for convenience, plus a few more added in.
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:
1. This Endris Night
In the christianized version of this song written down by Richard Hill about 1530 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,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 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 in Scandinavia 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.
2. Welcome Yule! Thou Merry Man
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 this song 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 of Welcome Yule on YouTube by Tenet, a vocal ensemble. 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.
3. The Holly Bears a Berry
Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,
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.
4. The Holly and the Ivy
The holly and the ivy,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.
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 blossomThere are some very nice recordings of the christianized version of this song including on the Children’s Revels CD; and by Anonymous 4 on the Wolcum Yule CD. There is a version on YouTube of The Holly and the Ivy by Mediaeval Baebes, and they use “harp” for “organ.”
There are some Pagan lyrics rewritten for the Holly and the Ivy, for example by Doreen Valiente which she called The Pagan Carol. The lyrics are given from her website. They are included now on the Yule Songs Lyrics page. There is also a good adaptation of the Holly and the Ivy rewritten by Karen Deal Robinson, given on the Odin’s Gift website, but I couldn't find any recordings of these.
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 or GBBC 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 or during a drive around the countryside. Here is a link to their data page (it’s a pdf file, so may be 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. The dates of the actual Bird Count for this winter are February 17-20 in 2017, but you don’t have to wait for February to do this. Any day is fine and if you have the day off on the 25th of December, this is a fun thing to do.
5. Nay, Nay, Ivy
First VerseThere is a beautiful performance of Nay, Ivy, Nay by Sue Brown with Lorraine Irwing on harp, on YouTube. This version has slightly different lyrcs. There is another 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 and this year the theme is Wales. Some of their songs are 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.
6. Ivy is Good
Chorus:There is a recording of Ivy is Good on YouTube now by the English Ayres.
7. Green Ivy O
O the Ivy O, she do grow, 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 Song is sadly Christian. Neither is included in any anthology of Kipling’s poetry.
8. Green Growith the Holly
Green growith the holly,The correct second verse (with the spelling modernized) is:
As the holly groweth greenThe 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 is a performance of the original lyrics by Sirinu on the All Goodly Sports CD, and a different version of Green Growth the Holly on YouTube by West Chester University Collegium Musicum. There is a version by Anonymous 4 on the Wolcum Yule CD, and these last two use some additional music for the verses. The christianized version is beautifully performed on the first (Langstaff) Revels Christmas CD, and another version of Green Grow’th the Holly can be heard on YouTube, sung by Susan McKeown and Lindsey Horner from the Through the Bitter Frost and Snow CD. The lyrics for that version are on the YT page.
Modern Winter Solstice SongsThere are some very beautiful modern songs for the Winter Solstice in a traditional style. The ones listed here are not numbered because they have been added in since this page was originally written. New songs are being written (or are being “discovered” by me) all the time.
Solstice Evergreen is a modern song in traditional form, and Solstice Evergreen by Spiral Dance 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.
Solstice Carol is a very beautiful song by the Wyrd Sisters, and Solstice Carol can be heard on YouTube.
WassailingAccording to all the sources, Was-hail! means ‘be in health’ although personally I suspect that it refers to the ale.
9. The Earliest Wassail (that we know of)
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. They can best be kept straight by remembering the first line.
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 at Wassail Songs page. This site is entirely devoted to Wassailing and it gives many customs, songs and recipes. It has a lot of information, nice pictures and the words and music to many wassail songs.
10. Jolly Wassel-Bowl
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. An easier to read source for the words and music for A Jolly Wassel Bowl is on John Speller’s webpage, which has two separate pages in PDF format, Page 1 and Page 2. 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. The song begins:
A jolly wassel-bowl,There is a performance of A Jolly Wassel Bowl by Leafy Greens & Mutton in the first 1:39 of a video on YouTube.
11. Gloucestershire Wassail
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.
12. Gower Wassail
There are recordings of Phil Tanner singing this song available various places, including the MidWinter CD’s. 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. The Wassail Song, as they call it, is also sung by the Watersons, on the Frost and Fire CD.
There are additional verses in the liner notes to the Lomax: Songs of Christmas CD, which also includes a recording of it, one of which shows clearly one purpose of a Luck Visit:
Here’s a health to our Colley and her crooked horn,
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 of the (Somerset) Wassail Song by John Kirkpatrick, Rosie Cross, Georgina Le Faux, Michael Gregory, Jane Threlfall & Carl Hogsden on the “Wassail, a Traditional Celebration of an English Midwinter” CD, (which I first heard on the MidWinter CDs). This has 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, available from Topic Records. They also have a pdf booklet. 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 the Can Wassel is performed by Anonymous 4, singing in Cornish, on the Wolcum Yule CD. 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, mainly in January. #boar
Feasting Songs on Mothers NightThe ancient practice of celebrating Modraniht 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. 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. For example, marzipan pigs like the ones in the picture from World Market are still considered a traditional treat at Christmas time in Germany and Scandinavia.
Boar’s Head CarolsThere are at least six Boar’s Head Carols and the oldest dates to 1521 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 (which follows). Another Boar’s Head Carol, known as the Exeter version, is in the form of a motet for 3 voices. It 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 pork is still popular. More recent songs continue to celebrate pork and many other foods for dinner.
13. Boar’s Head Carol
The boar’s head in hand bear I,The Oxford version is recorded in several places including by the Chieftains, on the Bells of Dublin CD. 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, 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.
There is a recipe for Yule Pies as we like to call them, properly called Heathen Cakes, known from a medieval German cookbook. The short version of the recipe for Heathen Cakes is given here. 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.
14. Deck the Halls or Nos Galan Gaeaf
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Alternative words, attributed to John Hughes, are 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 Chieftains’ on the Bells of Dublin CD, where it 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. However there is a DVD that shows the dances, called The Chieftains, Live over Ireland, Water from the Well and this includes the Dingle Set. 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, but this version of Deck the Halls sung by the College of St. Scholastica Chamber Choir is fairly straight forward (no pun intended).
15. Twelve Days of Christmas
On the First Day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
The rest of the words are given on the Yule Song Lyrics page. I found a good recording on YouTube of the Twelve Days of Christmas performed by the Choir of Wells Cathedral, under the direction of Malcolm Archer.
16. We wish you a Merry Christmas or the Figgy Pudding
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 teddy bear animations. It is also sung by a family on Rick Steve’s European Christmas podcast while they are making mincemeat pies. This program shows traditional ways of celebrating Christmas in several European countries and the DVD was available for sale on his website, but you can now watch the whole program on YouTube. Rick Steve’s European Christmas is in 10 Parts, with each part set in a different country. Part 2, in England also shows how to make mincemeat pies, another traditional dessert for the holidays. They are made in muffin tins with a pastry top and bottom, originally made with chopped meat and dried fruit, but now usually made with dried fruit and nuts. The little children in the household are singing the Figgy Pudding Song.
Remembering the Dear Departed
17. Yorkshire Wassail Song
18. The Wassail Song
Here we come a-wassailingThe other verses are given on the Yule Song Lyrics page, but this is my favorite verse...
God bless the master of this houseThere is a recording of this song on the (Langstaff) Children’s Revels CD, and also a version of the Wassail Song with snow can be heard on YouTube. This last was made by Jim Carroll in Upstate New York and it seems like a quiet reminder of the season.
So I hope you like these songs and that you have a very Happy Yule and Winter Solstice!
References for Yule Songs in EnglishMost 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.
The Yule Songs Lyrics page is at: http://piereligion.org/yuleslyrics.html
This article was originally published at pierce.yolasite.com/yulesongs but Yola went out of business so it has been migrated here.
© 2007, last updated 11/23/2016, at piereligion.org/yulesongs.html