We Wish You a Merry Christmas: Pudding, Pagans, and Revolt

Arthur Warrell (sort of) — 1939

Part of what makes the Christmas season so special and distinct is its incredibly rich iconography: Christmas trees, holly, and wreathes all come to mind at the mention of the holiday. But what else do these things all have in common? They all started as something that had nothing to do with Christianity, and the more you dig into the history behind the contemporary celebration of Christmas, the more bizarre connections you find. Like caroling! It’s difficult to even picture people going door to door singing something that isn’t Christmas music, and top of the heap for caroling songs is “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But how did caroling become a part of Christmas? Well, it’s a bit complicated.

“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as a complete piece of music originates in Bristol. Conductor and organist Arthur Warrell arranged a four-part version of the song for his University of Bristol Madrigal Singers in December of 1935, and that version was published by the Oxford University Press as “A Merry Christmas: West Country Traditional Song.” Unlike the more common version we’re familiar with today, Warrell’s draft is a little more personal, replacing the “We” with “I.” If you’re familiar with Bing Crosby’s recording, this version will be familiar.

As “Traditional Song” would imply, Warrell may have published a version of this tune, but he can’t take full credit for writing the song. Elements of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” pop up literally hundreds of years before Warrell joined the scene, but like many traditional pieces, the history gets a lot murkier the further you go back.

Let’s start with the chorus. The phrase “a merry Christmas and a happy new year” dates back to the early 18th century, where it appears in a letter from Samuel Goodman, a man stationed at Fort St. George in what is now Chennai, India, dated December 20th, 1710.

The phrase really starts to blow up in the 19th century however, once it gets tied to verses sung by “mummers,” masked people (sometimes children) who would go door-to-door singing, performing short plays, and requesting gifts. The phrase itself appears in an 1858 short story by English novelist Charlotte Yonge titled ‘The Christmas Mummers,’ which goes “I wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year / A pantryful of good roast-beef, and barrels full of beer.” Around this time it was also customary for wealthy folk to let the mummers into their home and offer them a Christmas treat, like a Christmas pudding (or “figgy pudding”) as payment.

Though absolutely none of this sounds even remotely advisable or even legal now (especially in 2020), much of the pre-movie English world enjoyed these door-to-door performances from time to time, and the tradition itself dates back to at least 1296, when the wedding of King Edward I’s daughter (on Christmas, funny enough) included “mummers of the court” along with “fiddlers and minstrels.” Mumming also has a number of similarities to an equally old Pagan tradition: wassailing. Dating back to at least the middle ages, groups of wassailers would go door-to-door offering good tidings and a drink of hot mulled cider from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts and food. Though wassailing and mumming are uncommon now (unless you live in Newfoundland), the traditions live on in the form of caroling, which of course we now associate more with Christmas.

It’s easy to build mental connections between caroling and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Along with “Jingle Bells,” it’s the quintessential caroling song, and few Christmas songs have the same clear and direct goal of spreading merriment in the way these two songs do, and in the 17th century the purpose of caroling became especially important.

Enter Oliver Cromwell, S-tier puritan and notorious holiday buzzkill. Between 1653 and 1658, Cromwell served as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland after his Parliamentary Army overthrew King Charles I, and during his brief reign, Cromwell and his government imposed many of their strict puritan beliefs on their people. To briefly sum up the Puritan hardcore view on the season, winter, and by extension Christmas were not joyous times, but times for quiet reflection. The social gatherings and rituals were considered frivolous and disrespectful, so in an attempt to quell such debauchery, a number of regulatory acts were put in place.

In January 1645, Parliament released a Directory of Public Worship that outlined which festival days were meant to be spent quietly contemplating. Obviously Christmas was on the chopping block. Legislation was also enacted in 1656 that made it mandatory to close all shops and markets on Sundays, and things got especially out of hand when soldiers in London were instructed to patrol the streets and take any food that was being prepared for Christmas celebrations. This is what a war on Christmas actually looks like.

Not surprisingly, these were unpopular decisions, and a number of Christmas riots broke out across the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, between 1647 and 1660, Christmas carols were banned, but like in the story of “O Holy Night,” you can’t keep people away from the music they love.

For the nearly two decades Christmas celebrations were banned, people still found ways to celebrate. Churches held covert masses, people had their own quiet celebrations away from the eyes of the law, and caroling became an act of protest. Like the scenes described in contemporary renditions of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” weren’t just a novelty but a last-ditch attempt to save the music and bring cheer to the downtrodden. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” would have played a crucial role in spreading some much-needed cheer in a dark and especially morbid season.

After Cromwell’s death, the collapse of the Protectorate, and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, all legislation enacted during the puritan rule was considered null and void. Christmas parties, feasts, masses, and carols were back on the table across the commonwealth, and over the following Georgian and Victorian eras, a number of the great classics were published, including “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Along with restoring holiday celebrations, they also posthumously executed Cromwell in 1661, which is kinda insane.

If you take Christmas away, they might actually kill you after you’re dead.

Between Pagan traditions, sweeping legal action, and door-to-door booze demands, caroling has had a strange and surprisingly political history, and a good portion of that history is locked in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” As a kid, it was one of the first carols I distinctly remember singing, but it took a long time before I started actually considering what the song is all about. Turns out there’s a lot hidden behind the cheesy veneer of that song, and it’s not all just pudding.

Toronto-based journalist and creative writer with an interest in music, art, people, and small business. Twitter and Instagram @PeteSanf

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