Format : PDF as a Zipped File Download
Not very much is known about the origins of We Wish You A Merry Christmas, although there seems to be a consensus that it dates from the 1500s and came from the West Country in England. The music and the words conjure up a very vivid image of peasants taking advantage of the brief generosity of spirit of their rich overlords brought on by Christmas: "Now bring us some figgy pudding...”, and "We won’t go until we get some!”
There is something rather curious about the words, though. As everyone knows, each verse ends with "We wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year”. However, in the Middle Ages (right up to 1752, in fact) the New Year wasn’t celebrated on 1st January at all, but in March, so "...and a happy New Year” must have been added after 1752.
This is all quite strange, as 1st January was the start of the New Year in Roman times, "January” referring to Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings, always depicted with two faces, one looking back to the past, the other looking forward to the future. Part of the reason why the date ceased to be the start of each new year was that when the Romans calculated how long it took the Earth to go round the sun, they were out in their calculations by (wait for it) 0.007801 of a day. They were a lot closer than I’d have been, but even minuscule amounts like that do add up over the centuries.
The other reason is that the Church abolished the official date of January 1st as the start of the New Year in A.D. 567 (possibly wanting to shake off the association with an old pagan god), and various other dates were played with, all significant Christian festivals, until it settled on March 25th.
The Romans had added two additional months to the calendar (January and February), opting to copy the Egyptians and follow the solar year instead of fitting in with lunar cycles. Even so, as we’ve seen, they didn’t quite get their calculations right. It was in 1582 that the (more accurate) Gregorian calendar was established, and 1st January was reinstated. Some countries were quick off the mark to adopt the new date - Scotland, for example, adopted it in 1600. It’s a bit of a mystery why England (and its colonies) hung around, clinging to the old ways for another 152 years, but there it is.
I’ve said all this as if I’m a fount of wisdom on these matters, but I didn’t know most of it myself till I came to start writing this blurb, so if you’re a calendar scholar and know a lot more than I do, I’m perfectly happy to be told I’ve got it all wrong...