Source: William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, December 25)
The musicians who play by night in the streets at Christmas are called waits. It has been presumed, that waits in very ancient times meant watchmen; they were minstrels at first attached to the king's court, who sounded the watch every night, and paraded the streets during winter to prevent depredations.
In London, the waits are remains of the musicians attached to the corporation of the city under that denomination. They cheer the hours of the long nights before Christmas with instrumental music. To denote that they were "the lord mayor's music," they anciently wore a cognizance, a badge on the arm, similar to the represented in the engraving below, from a picture by A. Bloemart.
He blows his bagpipe soft or strong,
Or high or low, to hymn or song,
Or shrill lament, or solemn groan,
Or dance, or reel, or sad o-hone!
Or ballad gay, or well-a-dayŚ
To all he gives due melody.
Preparatory to Christmas, the bellman of every parish in London rings his bell at dead midnight, that his "worthy masters and mistresses" may listen, and be assured by his vocal intonation that he is reciting "a copy of verses" in praise of their several virtues, especially their liberality; and, when the festival is over, he calls with his bell, and hopes he shall be "remembered."
Note: See also:
The Beadle - An Appearance of the Season, William Hone (1827)
The Waits, William Chappell, Popular Music (1859).
The Rise of Secular Music in the Late Middle Ages, William Chappell, Popular Music (1859)
The Waits, "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, edited by W. Carew Hazlitt (1905)
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