O'Rourke's Noble Feast
Heap On More Wood!
Drive Cold Winter Away
Forth to the Wood
The Holly and the Ivy
The Heir With Roses In His Shoes
No Mark to Part
Hey Ho / Soulin'
The Wassail Bowl
The Christmas Feast
Traces of Ancient Mystery
The Cutty Wren
Honor to the Holy Night
The Wexford Carol
God Bless the Master
–––––– Christmas at Mertoun House ––––––
Heap on more wood! the wind is chill;
But let it whistle as it will,
We'll keep our Christmas merry still.
Each age has deemed the new-born year
The fittest time for festal cheer;
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
The hall was dressed with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry men go,
To gather in the mistletoe.
Then opened wide the baron's hall
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And Ceremony doffed his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose;
The fire, with well-dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide;
The huge hall table's oaken face,
Scrubbed till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
The wassail round, in good brown bowls,
Garnished with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reeked; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie;
Nor failed old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roared with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
On Christmas Eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas Eve the mass was sung;
And well our Christian sires of old
Loved, when the year its course had rolled,
And brought blithe Christmas back again,
With all his hospitable train.
Domestic and religious rite
Gave honour to the holy night;
England was merry England, when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
'Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale;
'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale:
A Christmas gambol oft could cheer
The poor man's heart through half the year.
–––––– NOTES ON THE SONGS ––––––
1. O'ROURKE'S FEAST O’ Carolan is probably the best known 18th century Irish harper. When in Dublin, he met Jonathan Swift. They collaborated in translating a poem by Hugh MacGauran of County Leitrim, which describes Christmas festivities held in the Great Hall of Dromahair Castle by Brian na Murtha (16th c). Carolan wrote the music.
Usquebaugh = water of life or whiskey madder = a wooden cup containing 1 to 3 pints
2. DRIVE THE COLD WINTER AWAY Also called In Praise Of Christmas or All Hail To The Days, this is one version of an early 17th century ballad; many have over a dozen verses. Early publications are in Pills to Purge Melancholy (1698) and in a broadside collection under A Pleasant Country new Ditty: Merrily shewing how to drive the cold winter away. In The English Dancing Master (1651), a jig by the same name accompanies a three part longways dance.
3. THE HOLLY & THE IVY Evergreens, symbolic of the continuity of life, were used to decorate the winter house as a refuge for wandering spirits. The song may have originated as a contest between the masculine (holly) and feminine (ivy) elements in nature. One early variant, Get Ivy And Hull, Woman, Deck Up Thine House (1558), makes no mention of the Christian symbolism. Melodies found for this song range from doleful to jocular. This version obviously crossed over from pre-Christian times. It integrates the symbolism of the plants into the story of Jesus and is set to a lively jig.
4. THE CHRISTMAS HORNPIPE appears in many collections of popular traditional dance tunes. In earlier centuries dancing, in both great hall and kitchen, was a staple of any Christmas celebration
5. SOULIN’ Originally sung during the All Saints /Souls holiday in early November, this song is now found in modern Christmas repertoire. In pre-Christian times, it was believed that souls of the dead wandered at this time of year. The living would provide for them on their journey with cakes. This custom attracted notice as early as the 1600’s, when John Aubrey wrote ' All Soules'-day, Novemb. 2d- there is sett on the Board a high heap of Soule-cakes, lyeing one upon another like the picture of the Sew-Bread in the old Bibles. They are about the bignesse of 2d cakes, and n'ly all the visitants that day take one; and there is an old Rhythm or saying,
" A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake, Have mercy on all Christen soules for a soule-cake."
In Shropshire in 1886 it was noted “Poor children, and sometimes men, go out ' souling ' which means that they go round to the houses of all the more well-to-do people within reach, reciting a ' ditty ' peculiar to the day, and looking for a dole of cakes, broken victuals, ale, apples, or money.”
6. WASSAIL MEDLEY Was-Hael!, the Anglo-Saxon invocation for “Good Health”, accompanied the drinking of spiced ale or cider served in an ornate wooden bowl. One drinker would raise his vessel, salute his companion with a kiss, and shout "Wassail!". The other returned the kiss and cried "Drink-hail!" whereupon both would drink. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in History of the Kings of Britain (1139), relates the origin of the custom to the meeting of Vortigern and Hengist's daughter, Ronwen. This ritual became combined with the Souling tradition as the traveling singers would invoke good fortune for the house and all occupants in exchange for refreshment. New verses were composed spontaneously for each house and member of the household.
7. GOOSE ROUNDS The fat Christmas goose was the favored repast in many affluent households. Street vendors would vie for attention with their catchy ditties hoping for sales.
8. THE CUTTY WREN One of many songs accompanying an age-old ritual procession traditional throughout the British Isles and Ireland. On December 26, a wren is killed and carried in an ornate cage around the village while its feathers are distributed as luck charms. The belief was that the wren had the honor of being King of the Birds and as such was sacrificed to provide sustenance for the community. Since the wren was King perhaps supernatural, superlative effort was required to carry out the ritual. This motif appears in numerous ancient hero tales and songs.
9. THE WEXFORD CAROL From Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, this is one of the oldest extant Christmas carols in the European tradition dating to the 12th century. William Grattan Ford (1859 - 1928), organist and music director at St. Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, transcribed the carol from a local singer. Published in the Oxford Book of Carols.
10. GOD BLESS THE MASTER Another in the tradition of house-blessings, these words are adapted from The Saviour Of All People found in William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833) The tune was noted as being sung by Christmas Mummers from the neighbourhood of Horsham, Sussex, England in the late 1870’s.