Caroling has a long and colorful history, far removed from the family friendly activity it has today.  While modern-day caroling revels in the beauty, innocence, and magic of the Christmas season, the history of caroling at Yule is a bawdy and raucous affair.  Caroling was a Celtic tradition enjoyed at all the sabbats, not just Yule.  Caroling was associated with costumes and dancing, when caroling dancers went around town to sing lewd songs outside homes, and hurl insults at the home-owners. The home-owners were then obliged to return the insults to the carolers. Whichever group outwitted the other in verse would be declared the winner. If the revelers won, they must be allowed inside and given food and beverage.   Contemporary carolers still sing “Here we go-a-wassailing” demanding “now bring us some figgy pudding” and carolers threaten “we won’t go until we get some.”   Similar to Samhain trick-or-treating, caroling promised retribution for homeowners who refused carolers a reward for their efforts.  Some bands of carolers had a strong healing element.  Their carols were able to heal illness and injury, and their blessings were able to attract abundance to a household, farms and crops.

Caroling could also be dangerous.  Alcohol was usually flowing during caroling festivities, and drunken singers could get rowdy and even violent.  According to one historian,  “When a fellow named Gilbert de Foxlee tried to break up the dancing, he was stabbed in the back with a dagger, cut in the right arm with a sword, and slashed on the left leg with an axe. He died after eight weeks of infection and pain.”

Caroling was — of course — condemned by the Church; name your sin — witchcraft, devilry, or just having too much fun.  Caroling was considered so offensive to the Church that they referred to caroling as “sinful traffic” and for 700 years issued edicts and warnings against caroling, warning citizens ‘flee wicked and lecherous songs, dancing, and leaping.”  Caroling was considered so pagan and blasphemous that between 600 and 1500 the Church banned caroling on Church grounds.  Caroling must have been a good time for clerics and priests who found themselves caught up in the fun received a stern scolding. In one Church document priests were accused of neglecting their clerical duties “while indulging in dances and masques; for prowling the city streets and lanes day and night and leading a riotous existence.”

Eventually, church leaders adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach. St. Francis of Assisi was one of the major proponents of replacing the old “riotous carols with ones more appropriate” in Italy, which then spread through Europe.  This laid the foundations for the innocent and PG rated activity we know today. 

With thanks to Carol Emetic and her Celtic Guide to the History of Christmas Carols.

Compiled by Kamberlyn.   When not writing for Ravenhawks,  Kamberlyn works with clients seeking a more spiritually centered life.  In her work, she helps people realize the relationship, career and finances that belongs to their soul.  She can be found on KEEN at Kamberlyn Divine Love or through her website,

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