20 December 2018

WASSAILING WE GO: CAROLLING FASHION FROM AGES LONG PAST

Sew What | Rachel Dice


So what’s your holiday style: trendy, traditional, or drunken viking?

Victorian winter wear for women and children, circa 1850. Source. 
If you’re planning on being ultra-traditional and going out carolling this holiday season, the most important thing to think about is your aesthetic. The popular thing these days is to wear a horrible Christmas sweater—some of which light up or play music. Or maybe, you might want to stick with good old red and green, which isn’t as old as you’d think. Our red and green Christmas colours
This plush blue velvet coat with white fur collar and cuffs
from the Aurora Museum & Archives looks more like 
what Santa would have originally worn. Photo courtesy
of Rachel Dice.
come from depictions of Santa Claus working amongst his merrily-clad elves, but originally, Santa would have worn white and blue during the holiday season. A 1920s era blue velvet coat with its white fur collar and cuffs in the textile collection at the Aurora Museum & Archives is more in line with what he would have worn back in his early days. So how did Santa’s outfits become such a big part of the holidays? And what about carolling?

Well, it’s a pretty well-known fact that the Santa we know and love today got his outfit from Coca-Cola ads introduced during the 1920s. Due to the popularity of the drink, it’s understandable that his cool red outfit would become a popular Christmas icon, leading festive revellers to don a red and white hat in honour of the festive figure. The classic look became part of an old holiday tradition—carolling.

In our modern day and age, carolling has pretty much become something confined to a stage at a
Michael Goodchild in his performing blacks at
the Exultante Winter Concert, the modern
carolling event. Photo courtesy of Annelise
Danielle. 
Christmas market or at special winter concerts. Depending on the venue and the choir, the styles we see either lean towards performing blacks or holiday gear. If you’re lucky, you might even see some Victorian-inspired carollers in top-hats, bonnets, and hoop skirts. Despite our modern influences in colour choices—most Victorian-inspired carollers perform decked out in red and green—actual Victorian carollers would have just worn their winter clothing accessorized with some holly or other seasonal flowers to mark the festive occasion.

If the Victorian era isn’t quite your style, then perhaps the real roots of carolling are for you. Carolling is an extremely old tradition that actually pre-dates Christmas itself. Originally called wassailing, this pagan Yuletide tradition was much more than just singing songs. Wassailers would perform ritual chants, sing, act out small skits, and make a merry havoc in winter months. These activities were usually accompanied by a traditional drink—called wassail. This drink would have been somewhere between a mead, beer, and apple cider. Wassailing would usually happen in an apple orchard on the twelfth night of Yule to awaken the trees, chase away demons, and convince the trees to thrive over the next year. After finishing up in the orchard, wassailers generally pointed themselves in the direction of the nearest village and continued on their drunken way.

Traditional clothing for wassailers was the ever-present tunic worn by most medieval men, or a bliaut and kirtle worn by women. Since it was also winter, wassailers wrapped furs around their leggings and arms to keep themselves warm, and also added in a mid-length cloak that usually went to their
Typical medieval garb for men, rich and poor. Wassailers
would have the addition of furs and capes to keep themselves
warm as they launched into the night to wreak festive havoc.
Source.
elbows. The type of fur was important as well. Most wassailers were peasants, which means that they used weasel or mink fur instead of the softer furs favoured by the rich. If a fur-clad wassailer made their way over to you demanding figgy pudding or the like (since that song didn’t exist yet), then you had better give it to them! People who refused to comply to a wassailer’s requests were pulled into rowdy or racy skits and chants while other wassailers caused havoc around them. Now THAT sounds like a holiday tradition that we all need.

So how about we forget about the traditional and tame group carolling, and go all out this holiday season? A bowl of cider, some furry leggings, and a bit of mischief are all you need to get into the wassailing mood.


The modern version of "traditional" carollers. Source.
Whatever your style, enjoy the holidays and have an excellent new year!

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