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The Traditional English Carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"

The traditional Christmas carols generally evoke a deep religious aura. However, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," along with some other carols, broke the established order, offering more of a humorous twist.

The identity of the author and composer of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" remains a mystery to date. However, its origins are widely believed to be in the sixteenth century, where it was dedicated to carolers who performed for the entertainment of the rich and powerful.

Card "Merry Christmas & Happy New Year"


The carol has quite a colorful history, reflecting on the witty carolers of the Victorian era and their inclination towards a traditional "Christmas dessert." It is also connected to the regeneration of the tradition known as "caroling," a practice that was banned in the churches during the Middle Ages. The Protestant Oliver Cromwell had played a key in this, banning all Christmas carols between the period of 1647-1660. The church-going public collaborated in a desperate attempt to save the traditional songs - going from door to door and performing them in the Victorian era.

Arthur Warrell

Arthur Warrell is accredited for the wide popularity of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." In 1935, he arranged the tune for his group "Bristol University Madrigal Singers" and subsequently performed it at a concert on the 6th of December. His intricate four part arrangement of the same was further published by the "Oxford University Press" in the same year. It was titled - "A Merry Christmas: West Country Traditional Song."

Arthur Sydney Warrell was born in Farmborough, Somerset, in the year 1883. He completed his education at the "Merchant Venturer's Technical College in Bristol," and the "Bristol Cathedral" under the tutelage of Hubert Hunt. He was the chief organist and choirmaster at several Bristol churches, including St. Nicholas, St. Agnes, and St. Matthias, to name a few. In 1909, he was also appointed as a music teacher at the "Department of Education" at the University of Bristol. He was also the founder of the Bristol University Madrigal Singers, the Bristol University Orchestra, and the Bristol University Choir. He put a greater emphasis on English works, which resulted in some composers dedicating their pieces to him.

"I" Wish You a Merry Christmas

Warrell's arrangement is widely regarded as the first instance when the score was penned. In 1939, the year he passed away, he was also granted the copyright to the carol. While a lot is not known about how Warell acquired the song, his arrangement enjoyed mass popularity. In December of 1940, it was performed on the radio by "BBC Chorus." Throughout the Second World War and beyond, newspapers have widely attested rave reviews of the carol being performed in Christmas concerts. However, during the period spanning from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, there is no published record of the carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." The root of the original verse is speculated to have originated from the west country, possibly Somerset. Warrell spent most of his childhood in the rural west country, which offers more fire to this theory. His original arrangement is especially notable for the usage of "I" in place of "we" in the lyrics. Instead of "We wish you a Merry Christmas," he used, "I wish you a Merry Christmas." However, that was the only time it was down the years. The plural version slowly came into prominence.

Musical Overview

In 1961, Arthur's version was republished under the collection titled - "Carols for Choirs." It remains the most performed version of the carol to date. However, despite being so revered, the carol is mysteriously absent from some noted collections of music from its contemporary era. It isn't included in the collections of West-countrymen William Sandys (1833) and Davies Gilbert (1822 and 1823), and also from the anthologies of Husk (1864) and Sylvester (1861). Also, it is notably missing from the "The Oxford Book of Carols," published in 1928. In 1992, Andrew Parrott and Hugh Keyte, the editors of the "Comprehensive New Oxford Book of Carols," describe it as the epitome of "Traditional English songs." However, even this version fails to offer any source or date.

Usage in Popular Culture 

A huge number of artists have recorded the carol through history, from the Indie-pop outfit "Weezer" to the Japanese punk band "Shonen Knife," along with various symphonies and choruses. However, the most popular version can be easily accredited to the Christmas carolers, who have continued to perform it in the holiday season through the centuries. The compelling thing is, it has survived without any sort of recordings through time.

  • A version of the carol is used on the "Barney & the Backyard Gang" episode titled "Waiting for Santa."
  • A rendition to the tune of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" was used in the album - "Ren & Stimpy's Crock O' Christmas." It was named "We Wish You a Hairy Chestwig."
  • The album "Nick at Nite: A Classic Cartoon Christmas" also used the carol. 
  • "Pokémon Christmas Medley," the Pokémon Christmas Bash album featured an abridged chorus of the song, albeit with modified lyrics.   
  • In 2002 and 2003, the chorus was also used in the promo of the "Merry Nickmas" event on Nickelodeon. 
  • A version of the carol is further used in "Phineas and Ferb Holiday Favorites," the Phineas and Ferb soundtrack. It was also used for the episode "A Phineas and Ferb Family Christmas."   
  • In 2010, a music video featuring the carol was broadcasted on the Disney channel, albeit with different animations.  
  • The song is also performed by "Twilight Sparkle" in the soundtrack "It's A Pony Kind Of Christmas," in for the album "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic." Twilight doles out the tune while strolling through Ponyville in an attempt to organize a Christmas party.   
  • In 2011, Erin McKeown used a satirized version of the carol in her anti-Christmas album. 
  • The most folk-friendly version of the song can be accredited to the collaborative efforts of the Muppets and John Denver for their joint album.

The Figgy Pudding Effect

The initiating line "We wish you a Merry Christmas," was predominantly used as a greeting. The lines - "bring us some figgy pudding, bring it right here, we won't go until we get some," actually refer to the treats that the carolers often received as payment and the fact that they would continue singing until they were rewarded.

The carol has a cheeky tune that emphasizes the dynamic between the wealthy and the needy. The lyrics call for "figgy pudding" - a traditional Christmas dessert made of figs. The legend goes that the poor carolers refused to leave the doorsteps of the rich until they were delivered rewards. The song also reflects this ardent urging and demands a certain degree of playful teasing.

The effect of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" on the festive season is paramount. Probably, no other carol can be accredited to being a directly proportional factor of spreading merriment across the history of Christmas folk songs. Except, maybe Jingle Bells. The fact that this simple song became so infectious is a testament to the inherent gravity of the prevalent social structure. The joyous souls had intensely coined this more than 400 years ago. Humanity just needs to share the same enthusiasm in the upcoming festive seasons. 


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