Contemporary caroling has several predecessors. From ancient Roman times up into the 18th century, celebrations of the winter solstice and, later, Christmas, emphasized social inversion, and often involved house-to-house visiting. Two main types of house visits were wassailing and mumming.
Wassailing was a form of ritualized social inversion that began in the middle ages. Male peasants would go to the home of their feudal lord and sing songs demanding that he give them some portion of the best of his stock—beer, spirits, and cakes. He would do so and, in exchange, the peasants would give him their “good will,” which in feudal times was no small matter. This practice continued after feudalism, with poorer folks visiting wealthy homes. We still sing some of the “good will” parts of wassailing songs today, leaving out the verses that threaten physical harm if demands are not answered.
Another group of traditions involved disguised visitors entering homes to perform a short play, make music or mischief, dance, or require the hosts to guess their identities, depending on the local tradition. Collectively, these traditions are called “mumming.” Mumming almost always involved a “payment” of goods for the entertainment—food, alcohol, or money. Unlike wassailing, it was not always practiced along class lines. Mumming is still practiced in a few places in Europe.
Another caroling ancestor is found in the Christmas Waits. In medieval England, waits were official town musicians who played on civic occasions and doubled as night watchmen. When the waits were abolished in 1835, amateur groups sprung up to replace them at Christmastime. They played and sang house-to-house for tips, becoming known as the Christmas Waits.
The United States came to have its own mixture of house visit customs, as immigrants brought their traditions with them and these melded with others. Even in Puritan New England, where Christmas was banned because of its rowdy character, there are accounts of illegal wassailing. Through the 19th century, both urban and rural house visit customs were usually disorderly, often scary. In large cities like Philadelphia and New York, drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making “rough music,” and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes. Upper class Victorian-era citizens took on the project of taming Christmas.
Victorians domesticated the holiday, focused it on children, and created organized charity in an attempt to allay direct begging. As they worked to suppress rowdy wassailing, they promoted carol-singing at home, in church, and on town greens. They re-imagined feudal Christmases as celebrations of class harmony, when happy peasants serenaded their generous masters with songs of goodwill. They depicted this image in their writing and on Christmas cards, and even set about collecting folk carols and writing new carols in a self-consciously medieval style. “Good King Wenceslas” and “Deck the Halls,” for example, were both written in the mid-19th century, despite their medieval themes.
In turn-of-the-century Boston, a man who had experienced the charm of the Christmas Waits in England began the custom of outdoor caroling in that city. Organizations such as the National Bureau for the Advancement of Music promoted outdoor caroling in the 1910s and ’20s. By the middle of this century, caroling had become what we think of today, with neighbors visiting one another’s homes, as well as hospitals and nursing homes, in a more or less orderly fashion.