Carols and Capers

Carols and Capers was performed in three venues on the Isle of Wight in December 2004.

Carols and Capers is a Christmas show. We aim to introduce the audience to some Christmas traditions that are less well known. There are no Christmas trees, no Dickens, no bright red Santa Claus. Instead, there we cover “such wholesome family traditions as the hunting of small animals, vicious murder, and the rather riotous Miss Rule”. (See, we practiced so much that I can still recite the narrator’s script off by heart six months on, and I wasn’t even the narrator. I think this is probably rather sad.

The show is introduced by Green Jack. Green Jack and another narrator lead the audience through a variety of Christmas traditions, explaining a bit about the historical background. Along the way, the rest of the group hop on and off stage, illustrating the points with songs, dances, and actions. The show also includes a performance of the Mummers’ Play, and ends with some communal singing of some slightly more unusual carols.

Audiences were rather small – except in Niton Church, where we had a full house! – but everyone who came said that they enjoyed it a lot. We think we possibly enjoyed it, too.

For pictures of Carols and Capers, see the Gallery.

Here are some Christmas traditions. If you want to find out more… Well, you’ll have to come to our next performances of Carols and Capers.

Hunting the Cutty Wren
“Cutty wren” means “small wren” (as opposed, presumably, to the now-extinct Mega Ginormous Wren that used to terrorise local peasants). The wren, as well as the robin, was held in great reverence, and it was illegal to hunt it at any other time of the year, except over Christmas. (Though I can’t really imagine anyone wanted to hunt it. I mean, there’s not an awful lot of meat on a wren. Not enough to feed all the relations.)

As with many folk customs, no-one really knows what it means, or why people did it. One theory is that it derives from the fact that the wren was the King of Birds. Many folk customs are diluted forms of ancient practices, altered for a less bloody age. In some cultures, long ago, a real king was sacrificed at midwinter, to nourish the land with his sacred royal blood, bringing luck for the following year. The queen would then marry again and fatten up the next lucky candidate. Perhaps, at some point in history, some persuasive king managed to convince his people that it would be just as effective to kill a symbol in his place, and let him carry on being king until he was old and fat.

There are a variety of traditional songs associated with this custom. Click here for some of them.

The word “wassail” dates back to the 13th c. and comes from the Anglo Saxon was hal meaning “be whole” or “be of good health” – on, in other words, “Cheers!”. Wassailing was a mid winter ceremony in which people poured drink over apple trees, in order to make the orchards perform well the next year. (Despite repeated requests, none of the audience ever poured beer over us at our performances, so we will not be performing well next time). Every wassailer carried a wooden “wassail bowl”, and went from door to door begging people to fill it up with drink – usually a form of spicy cider. Presumably they drank a lot of it, but what was remained was poured over the trees, to bestow them with luck. Guns were also fired into the trees to scare away evil spirits, like gin or vodka or… Oh. Not that kind of spirits, I’m told. Oh well…

Old apple tree, we wassail thee
And hoping thou shalt bear
Hat-fulls, cup-fulls, great bushel bag-fulls
And a little heap under the stair
Hip hip Hurrah!


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