Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 78: Letters to Santa (Part II)

Continuing from last week, Grammar Grater is getting into the Christmas spirit. Christmas carol lyrics can be unclear and confusing. Last week, we settled some arguments over "Jingle Bells" and the "Twelve Days of Christmas." This week, we tackle the mystery of "wassail," find out what it is about figgy pudding that makes carolers demand it at the top of their voices, and uncover why Frosty the Snowman is at the heart of a 1950s Hollywood scandal.

First things first: What's "a-wassailing?"

According to The Christmas Music Companion Fact Book by Dale V. Nobbman, the carol "Here We Come a Wassailing" (or "Caroling" in some interpretations) seems to have originated in England in the 1600s. In the title of the song, wassailing is a verb. But wassail is both a verb and a noun. According to Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, to wassail means to "to drink to the health or success of; to toast." Wassail is also the drink used to make the toast; it's spiced ale or mulled wine. So, technically, it's possible to wassail with wassail.

But that raises the question: what do wassailers want with pudding if they're drinking and toasting? Like it says in "We Wish You a Merry Christmas?"

According to Beth Allen and Susan Westmoreland, authors of Good Housekeeping's Great American Classics Cookbook, figgy pudding is more cake or bread than the pudding we know. And as they write, traditional Christmas puddings are "often spiked with brandy, rum or wine."

Our modern idea of caroling is much different than the role played by roving bands or musicians called "waits." In her book The Spirit of Christmas: A History of Our Best-Loved Carols, author Virginia Reynolds writes:
"In many towns, the waits played the role of 'town criers,' singing the hours of the day and reporting local happenings. Christmastime kept them especially busy. As they strolled through the snowy streets, they told the story of the Nativity in song... Townspeople would show their appreciation by giving the singers money or food. After imparting their good wishes, the waits singers felt entitled to ask for some 'figgy pudding!'"

Which brings us to our final Christmas carol dilemma: why in the world would Frosty go "thumpity-thump-thump?" He's made of snow. Snow doesn't thump.

This is where our story takes a turn for the commercial and greedy. According to The History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein, Frosty was the product of two songwriters in the late 1950s, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, who wanted to cash in on the success of holiday songs sung by popular recording artists; Gene Autry had just sold two million copies of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." The story gets even more cynical; Eckstein writes:
"Frosty, from the tune, resembles a snowman in a children's book that preceded the famous song by five years. Snowy the Traveling Snowman, written by Ruth Burman in 1944, was about a magical, singing snowman who also danced and played with children and, like Frosty, had coal for eyes, wore a high silk black hat, and smoked a pipe. A passage from this rare Snowy book declared, 'The snowman came bumpity-bump down the hill.' The last line from Frosty the song concludes 'Thumpety thump-thump, over the hills of snow.' Without question, 'Thumpity thump thump' sounds like what someone—someone who really likes bumpity bump-bump but can't use that exact phrase—would use.

Sources: The Christmas Music Companion Fact Book by Dale V. Nobbman, the Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook by Beth Allen and Susan Westmoreland; The Spirit of Christmas: A History of Our Best-Loved Carols by Virginia Reynolds and The History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein.

Music from this episode: "Just Like Christmas" by Low; "Wassail" by Cantus; "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" by Tom Waits; "PsychoticBumpSchool" by Bootsy Collins; "Silver Bells" by Booker T. and the MGs; "Holiday in Waikiki" by The Kinks.

MPR News

Listen Now

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland