A Christmas Carroll
By George Wither
Lo, now is come our joyful'st feast!
1. So, now is come our joyfulst feast;
Let every man be jolly;
Each room with ivy leaves is drest,
And every post with holly.
Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine;
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry.
2. Now, all our neighbours' chimneys smoke,
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their ovens they with bak'd meats choke,
And all their spits are turning.
Without the door let sorrow lye;
And if for cold it hap to die,
We'll bury't in a Christmas pie,
And ever more be merry.
3. Now every lad is wondrous trim,
And no man minds his labour;
Our lasses have provided them
A bag-pipe and a tabor;
Young men and maids, and girls and boys,
Give life to one another's joys;
And you anon shall by their noise
Perceive that they are merry.
4. Rank misers now to sparing shun;
Their hall of music soundeth;
And dogs thence with whole shoulders run,
So all things there aboundeth.
The country folks themselves advance
With crowdy-muttons1 out of France;
And Jack shall pipe, and Jyll shall dance,
And all the town be merry.
5. Ned Squash hath fetcht his bands from pawn,
And all his best apparel;
Brisk Nell hath brought a ruff of lawn
With dropping of the barrell;2
And those that hardly all the year
Had bread to eat, or rags to wear,
Will have doth clothes and dainty fare,
And all the day be merry.
6. Now poor men to the justices
With capons make their errants;
And if they hap to fail of these,
They plague them with their warrants:3
But now they feed them with good cheere,
And what they want they take in beer;
For Christmas comes but once a year,
And then they shall be merry.
7. Good farmers in the country nurse
The poor, that else were undone;
Some landlords spend their money worse,
On lust and pride at London.
There the roysters they do play,
Drab and dice their lands away,
Which may be ours another day;
And therefore let's be merry.
8. The client now his suit forbears,
The prisoner's heart is eased;
The debtor drinks away his cares,
And for the time is pleased.
Though other purses be more fat,
Why should we pine or grieve at that?
Hang sorry! care will kill a cat,
And therefore let's be merry.
9. Hark! how the wags abroad do call
Each other forth to rambling:
Anon you'll see them in the hall
For nuts and apples scrambling.
Hark! how the roofs with laughter sound!
Anon they'll think the house goes round;
For they the cellars depth have found,
And there they will be merry.
10. The wenches with their wassel bowls
About the streets are singing;
The boys are come to catch the owls,4
The wild mare in is bringing.5
Our kitchen-boy hath broke his box,6
And to the dealing of the ox
Our honest neighbours come by flocks,
And here they will be merry.
11. Now kings and queens poor sheep cotes have,
And mate with every body;
The honest now may play the knave,
And wise men play the noddy.
Some youths will now a mumming go,
And others play at Rowland-ho,7
And twenty other gameboys8 mo,
Because they will be merry.
12. Then wherefore in these merry daies
Should we, I pray, be duller?
No, let us sing some roundelayes,
To make our mirth the fuller.
And, whilst thus inspir'd we sing,
Let all the streets with echoes ring,
Woods and hills, and every thing,
Bear witness we are merry.
Text Notes from Husk
1. A byword for a fiddler, derived from the crowth or crowd, a precursor of the violin. Return
"Ned Swash hath fetched his cloths from pawn,
With dropping of the barrell;
Joan Dust hath bought a smock of lawn,
And now begins to quarrel."
3. We need not be surprised that petty justices were guilty of such obliquity when we remember that about the period at which this carol was written the venality of judges was not unfrequent, even the great Bacon having stooped to "contaminate his fingers with base bribes."
Sylvester adds: "Formerly this was a custom on the part of tenants to their landlords, which came to be followed by all the poorer sort, who made their annual offering at the great man's shrine at this particular season of the year." Return
4. Brand, writing in 1795, says "A credible person born and brought up in a village not far from Bury St. Edmunds, in the county of Suffolk, informed me that, when he was a boy, there was a rural custom there among the youths of hunting owls and squirrels on Christmas Day." Return
That young men have to shoe the mare;"
which may possibly have been the same diversion as that named in our carol. Return
6. The old Christmas money-box was made of earthenware, and required to be broken in order to get at the money it contained. Return
7. This is also a sport which has slipped out of remembrance. It was possibly another name for hide-and-seek. Return
8. From the Anglo-Norman gambaudes; gambols or pranks. Return
By George Wither, printed in Jamieson's Popular Ballads, vol. ii. pp. 273-77. Also, George Wither, Fair-virtue, the Mistresse of Philarete (London: G. Grismand, 1622). Excellent notes on this poem can be found at George Wither: A Christmas Carol.
Also found in Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861)
We are indebted to the poet Wither for the following lively verses on Christmas. They were penned some time before he joined the Puritan party. As has been stated, they introduce us to an amusing picture of the rejoicings of the season, ere the civil troubles of the reign of Charles I. had interfered to throw a damper on the national hilarity. The holly and the ivy had not yet come to be regarded as emblems of paganism. The Christmas log still blazed on the hospitable hearth, and music and dancing were far from being considered irrelevant amusements. The wassail bowl, too, was in fashion, and even mumming was indulged in by both young men and maidens
Note that Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvester" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4.
This excellent and sprightly carol is from the pen of George Wither, and first appeared, under the above title [A Christmas Carol], in "A Miscelany of Epigrams, Sonnets, Epitaphs, and such other Verses" printed at the end of his poem called "Faire Virtve, the Mistresse of Philarete," in 1622. No better or livelier picture of the manner in which Christmas was celebrated in England before Puritanism became predominant can be presented to the reader.
Also found in William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, December 25).
Also found in Thomas Wright, Specimens of Old Christmas Carols Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books (London: The Percy Society, 1841): "A Christmas Carol, by George Wither. From his "Juvenilia," first printed in 1622."
Also found in Henry Vizetelly, Christmas With The Poets (London: David Bogue, 1851).
6. "Now poor men to the justices
With capons make their errants;"
Concerning the first two lines of the sixth verse (above), Vizetelly writes:
This was an old custom on the part of tenants to their landlords, which came to be followed by all the poorer sort who made their annual offering at the great man's shrine at this particular season of the year. Gascolgne, who wrote in their reign of Elizabeth, says —
"And when the tenants come to pay their quarter's rent,
They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish at Lent;
At Christmas a capon, a Michaelmas a goose;
For somewhat else at New-Year's tide, for fear their lease flie loose."
And Bishop Hall, in his Satires, has the following allusion to the circumstance: —
"Yet must he haunt his greedy landlord's hall,
With often presents at each festival;
With crammed capons every New Year's morn,
Or with green cheeses when his sheep are shorn."
Mr. Vizetelly had this note concerning the life of George Wither:
George Wither will be remembered as the author of many tender and graceful poems, some few of which invariably find a place in every collection of early poetry. He was one of those uncompromising spirits, formed by and for the age in which they live. He supported the cause of the Parliament with his satiric pen and good broadsword. He sold his estate to raise a regiment, and was made a major-general by Cromwell in return. The Restoration stripped him of everything he possessed; still this was only a part of his misfortunes, for he was shortly afterwards imprisoned in the Tower on a charge of sedition, and, to increase his punishment, pens, ink, and paper were denied him. When he obtained his liberty is now known; he lived, however, to the good old age of seventy-nine, closing his troublous worldly career on May 2, 1667.
Also found in A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), pp. 149-153.
Concerning verse six ("Now poor men to the justices."), Bullen also quotes the poet Gascolgne, as noted above.
Concerning verse ten ("The wild mare in is bringing."), Bullen writes:
The game of “shoeing the wild mare.” A youth was chosen to be the wild mare : he was allowed a start, and the other players then pursued him with the object of shoeing him. From Strutt’s meagre description it appears to have been a poor sport. I suppose that in the attempt to escape from the pursuers the wild mare kicked out lustily, upsetting chairs and tables. I don’t know what game is meant in the previous line, “The boys are come to catch the owls.” In the next stanza “noddy” is an old game of cards resembling cribbage. Of the game of “Rowland-ho” I can find no particulars.
Bullen also included this illustration by Henry G. Wells.
"Some youths will now a mumming go."
Editor's Note: Concerning the practice of mumming (mentioned in verse 11), see: A Christmas Mumming, 1377.