What does it mean to come a wassailing?

by Lorin Michel Friday, December 16, 2011 12:02 AM

No, I have not gone all Christmas all the time, though it’s not necessarily a bad idea. To paraphrase my favorite story of the season, and of life in general, you can be good to people all year round, not just at Christmas. As Dickens so eloquently wrote in 1843  “and it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well…” Ah, Ebenezer. You old humbug.

But lest you think that I’ve gone soft and squishy with the holiday spirit, I can assure you that just last night I crushed a spider on the wall in the living room.

Ho ho ho.

But there is a word that’s been drifting in and around my thoughts for a while. It’s in the title of fairly famous Christmas song, Here we come a-Wassailing, and it has me wondering: What does wassail actually mean, and is it, you know, legal?

Turns out, it is, and not only that, it’s a toast.  It hails from the Old English phrase wes hal, which predates the Norman conquest in 1066. It actually translates from the Middle Engish wæs hæl, and means to good health or more accurately, be you healthy. Wassail itself is an actual thing, a hot mulled punch that was once mulled beer, mixed with cinnamon. Then it became cider mixed with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, at least in centuries past. Regardless, it was a drink much like how we now drink beer or wine. More recently, wassail was and is made with wine. It’s almost always served exclusively at the holidays.

There is even glass wear! Wassail bowls, similar to goblets, were often so large they were passed around so all could drink from and celebrate them.

Wassailing to the apple trees

Wassail is wine, with some cinnamon, similar to mulled wine. But how does that translate to wassailing, since there is the famous Christmas carol of Here We Come A-Wassailing? Does that translate to here we come a drinking? Sort of. Evidently wassailing is very similar to caroling. It also means singing to trees in apple orchards in cider-producing regions of England, I guess to make enough apples to make wassail. Gives whole new meaning to the idea of sweet-talking.

The practice of wassailing began in the middle ages as a way to settle a dispute between feudal lords and their peasants. It’s a point made in the song “here we come a wassailing” when the wassailers inform the lord: “We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbours whom you have seen before.” The lord retaliates with food and drink and blessings of goodwill. “Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too.” Here We Come A-Wassailing is also the carol that served as the background for We Wish You a Merry Christmas, which dates to the 16th century. But wassailing also had a bit of a nasty side, with gangs of young men entering the homes of wealthy neighbors to demand free food and drink, in trick-or-treat fashion.

It makes you wonder what it all truly means. If wassail is a mulled cider and wassailing is similar to caroling does it mean that to come a-wassailing means to come singing on another’s doorstep with your own wine? Sort of a Middle English BYOW?

I’m looking for another spider because I need to smack something. It’s all so confusing.

Then I find this: The true purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare way any evil spirits.


As for the song, Here We Come A-Wassailing, it refers to singing Christmas carols door to door in order to wish good health to those that listen. I think I’ll make some mulled wine, or maybe just pour a nice glass of syrah, put some great Christmas carols on the stereo, and listen to the wailing of the modern wassailers.

I’m relaxing. This is lovely.

Wait. Is that a spider? 

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The power of traditions

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, December 6, 2011 11:24 PM

I’m getting sick. This fact, in and of itself, would not seem to be cause for celebration but you know me. I’m the one who has found reason to celebrate insomnia and headaches, so why not celebrate getting sick, right? Wrong. That’s not what this post is going to be about. In fact, I actually had another idea but I just didn’t have the time to research it today so I decided to pick another topic. Nothing came to me.

And then my throat started to scratch. Like rough sandpaper rubbing inside, roughing up the back of my mouth.

And I thought, well, isn’t this special? I’m getting sick. I don’t have time to get sick. I have many deadlines to meet, I have decorating still to do, I have shopping to finish and eventual presents to wrap once they begin arriving. There is music to listen to, meetings to attend, phone calls to make, arrangements to arrange. Sick is bad.

And then I remembered that I get this way every year around this time. It’s my annual cold/flu/throat irritation holiday sick. Not sick enough to keep me in bed all day sick; just sick enough to make me feel not quite myself. The brain doesn’t fire on all synapses, the fingers stumble a bit on the keyboard. I’m fuzzy. I look tired. Even my hair gets frizzy. It’s tradition!

Which got me to thinking about traditions in general, the more fun and less sick kind. Traditions like playing holiday music on Thanksgiving and cyber-shopping through Black Friday and the corresponding weekend, a tradition that really only started with the advent and proliferation of the internet. Opening presents one at a time on Christmas morning while munching on coffee cake. Going wine tasting the day after Christmas and de-Christmasing the house on January 1. Those are Christmas-related traditions.

There are also traditions like wine tasting on Thursday nights, staying at the Westward Look in Tucson when we travel to Arizona, celebrating Valentine’s Day by only spending $10 each on gifts. Those are some of our traditions.

The rest of the world has traditions as well, not all steeped in holidays though many are. Like fireworks on the 4th of July, and flags flying on Veteran’s Day, and the President throwing out the first pitch somewhere on baseball’s opening day; the Day of the Dead celebrations in mostly Latin countries, the Maypole dance, and birthday traditions to ward off evil spirits for at least another year. Marriage traditions vary from adorning a Pakistani bride’s hands with henna tattoos to African weddings full of song, dance and music. In Iceland, ceremonies start at least a day before the actual wedding while in Jamaica, a dark fruitcake laced with rum is served, with any remaining pieces mailed to friends and relatives. I wonder why the postal service is in trouble…

Traditions are rituals with roots in the past for present celebrations. They can be holidays or something totally impractical like the barrister wigs worn in English courts by lawyers. The word itself comes from the Latin traditio and was originally used in Roman law to refer to legal transfers. More modern interpretations happen when something new is introduced to something old, like a white wedding dress for weddings. Weddings themselves are nearly as old as mankind, but the white dress only became tradition after Queen Victoria wore a white gown when she married Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840. Traditions show up in politics, biology, music, social structure, anthropology, art, relationships, religion and my annual sickness.

Every year this happens, like clockwork, even though I don’t plan for it. It is tradition and it is a powerful force.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to engage in another tradition, this one daily: the ritual of going to bed.




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The rediscovery of Miles Davis

by Lorin Michel Monday, December 5, 2011 11:12 PM

Miles Davis is a bit of an acquired taste, and I’ve never truly acquired it. As much as I love jazz, especially spontaneous, bluesy jazz, I’ve never been able to warm up to him. Still I could appreciate him as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, leading the way in the development of several types of jazz including bebop, cool, hard bop, modal and fusion.

Born in 1926 in Illinois, he started studying music at 13 when his father gave him a trumpet. By 16 he was playing professionally, when not in school, and started playing with other jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in 1944 when their regular third trumpet was out sick. Davis studied at Juilliard and quickly began jamming at nightly sessions in Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s, both in Harlem. He dropped out of Juilliard and armed with what knowledge he had gained, went out on his own. His Birth of the Cool album in 1956 is what gave the cool jazz movement its name. Davis was a brilliant musician and a drug addict. He was generally admired when he wasn’t hated. His style was smoky and clear. No vibrato, or pulsating change of pitch; he liked “round sound with no attitude in it.” Interestingly the attitude he didn’t like in his music, he evidently spread around easily on and off stage. He was distant, cold, withdrawn and angry. But his nocturnal sound, his whispering voice and the fact that he often played with his back to the audience earned him the nickname “prince of darkness.”

His music is most definitely dark, and haunting. Some of it is actually quite lovely, something I was reminded of last night while watching an episode of “Homeland” on Showtime. They played Davis’ interpretation of My Funny Valentine over a montage of scenes and it was eerie, spooky and sexy. It made me want to listen to more of his music, especially that from his highly improvisational Kind of Blue album. It is the best-selling jazz record of all time, with 4 million copies spinning on countless turntables out there in the ether. Congress, in their infinite wisdom, even passed a resolution honoring the album as a national treasure in 2009.

But it was a song from his album Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (which also featured John Coltrane), released in May of 1956, that got my attention. I’ve always loved the Richard Rodgers song, My Funny Valentine, written in 1937 for the musical Babes in Arms. It’s sad and joyous, warm, tender and even a bit mysterious, depending on who’s singing or in this case playing it.

Watching the show last night, a show we have come to consider one of our favorites, I couldn’t help but notice the music, chosen to set the mood as well as to carry the story forward. There was no dialogue, only sadness and intrigue, a montage of people contemplating their regrets while completely and thoroughly alone.

It made me want to rediscover Miles Davis and perhaps finally appreciate him as I should. Maybe I’ll order a copy of Kind of Blue. It will be on CD, of course, so it will be missing some of the wonder of vinyl. But if I can find a vinyl copy, I’ll get that instead, spin it up on the turntable, lower the lights, pour some wine and wallow in the wonder that is truly great jazz.


And so the ho-ho begins

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, November 15, 2011 11:52 PM

It was long ago. The night was black save for the sparkling stars above. No lights glared from below to obscure their light. Camels bayed, an owl hooted. The ground was desert sands, whisked in wind. Cowbells rang and children laughed. In the wooden structures and hilltop gardens, men and women gathered to sing, raising their voices to the skies, to the universe. It was Christmas, 4th century, when the world’s first holiday song, composed by St. Hilary of Poitiers, rang through the night air. The song was Jesus refulsit omnium, lost to us now.

In the 12th century, St. Francis of Assisi was the first to introduce Christmas carols, so named for the pagan songs sung at Winter Solstice celebrations. The word “carol” actually means dance or a song of praise and joy. St. Francis loved both dance and song. As a patron of the arts, he inspired the composers of his day to deliver Christmas music, with the earliest known Christmas carol being one written by Ritson in 1410. By 1462, a Shropshire England priest and poet named John Audelay listed 25 “caroles of Cristemas” sung by groups of wassailers going from house to house to spread spirit and cheer. It was their music that soon became the greatest tribute to Christmas.

Christmas carols were actually banned between 1649 and 1660 by Oliver Cromwell who thought the songs had become too festive. And in 1818, perhaps the best known carol was written by an Austrian assistant priest named Joseph Mohr. It was entitled “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nact.” We know it as Silent Night, Holy Night. It was heard for the first time in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria as Friar Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber sang, accompanied by a guitar. Today, it’s sung in more than 180 languages. It is not, however, the best selling Christmas tune. That distinction belongs to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. It has sold more than 30 million copies.

I bring this up because I discovered that our local jazz radio station has already engaged in all Christmas all the time. First time ever. Each year, another station, an easy listening channel that I hate starts playing 24 hour Christmas music right around Thanksgiving and straight through to the 26th of December. They specialize in the Bing Crosby-Burl Ives-Karen Carpenter style of Christmas tunes. I’ve always been more partial to jazz. So imagine my delight when we got in the Rover at lunch and turned on KTWV, The Wave. A lovely tune flowed through the 13 speakers and drifted around us. We both sat there for a minute, perplexed. It’s only mid-November. Thanksgiving doesn’t happen until next week. Kevin turned to me, and I turned to him: “Is this ‘God Rest ye Merry, Gentlemen?’”

It was.


The holidays have more than officially begun, complete with music. I love holiday music, the jazzier and more obscure the better. If it has the tone of old English or a Celtic atmosphere, I’m even happier. The day after Thanksgiving is when I usually start. I load up the CD changer in the house and rotate the music. I load up the cars. Each year, we buy at least one new Christmas CD and it’s usually of the jazz variety.

Long ago, Justin, who is not a fan of Christmas music, told me I couldn’t listen to it until Thanksgiving. That’s when his horror begins. For years, I have abided by the rules. On turkey day I start with the more subtle tunes, the ones with just a hint of the ho-ho and gradually progress. The day after, as I said, full-on Christmas.

I don’t know what it is about holiday music but I do love it. Maybe it’s that it puts me in the mood for Christmas, maybe it’s the tradition of it. Maybe it’s just that some of it is damned fine music. And hearing new interpretations of it, often instrumentally, makes it even more so. Regardless, it has begun and it wasn’t even my fault. This year, I blame KTWV.

But I’m smiling and humming and celebrating the season. Ho-ho-ho!

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