"We Wish You A Merry Christmas"

History of an American folk song

Christmas. photo: Getty Images

When groups of people gather together to set out a-caroling around Christmas time, the most joyful carol they could possibly take along (next to, maybe, "Jingle Bells") is "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." It's all right there in the title. A more direct approach to the spreading of merriment cannot be found across the canon of Christmas folk songs. But where did this very simple song come from? Why is it so infectious? And is figgy pudding really worth demanding so heartily? ("We won't go until we get some" is a line perhaps more befitting a protest song than a joyous Christmas carol.)

The History of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”

"We Wish You A Merry Christmas" is an English folk song from the 1500s and is the remnant of a time when poor carolers would hit up wealthy listeners for handouts. It's a cheeky tune which recognizes the dynamic between rich and poor, calling for figgy pudding and refusing to leave the wealthy person's doorstep until some is delivered "right here." This is an awfully ardent demand for a Christmas song, so it's meant to be sung with a certain degree of joshing.

Now bring us some figgy pudding
Now bring us some figgy pudding
Now bring us some figgy pudding
And bring it right here.

We won't go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
We won’t go until we get some
So bring it right here…

(Lyrics for "We Wish You a Merry Christmas")

…And a Happy New Year

As old English Christmas carols go, there are very few which mention the new year coming a week after Christmas. This is interesting mostly because January 1 wasn’t considered the new year in the Western world until the 1700s. So, in light of that history, it could be that the “and a happy new year” line was not added until later.

Who has recorded “We Wish You a Merry Christmas?”

Perhaps the most folk-friendly version on record of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” came from the collaborative album John Denver made with the Muppets. However, a number of other artists have recorded the song through the years, from Japanese punk outfit Shonen Knife to indie pop band Weezer , not to mention a number of choruses and symphonies. The song’s most popular mode of performance, however, remains that of the nameless, fameless Christmas caroler, who continues to go door to door each and every holiday season. The song’s oral history is probably its most compelling, as it survived centuries of passing down from caroler to caroler before it was ever recorded.

Erin McKeown included a satirized version of the tune on her 2011 anti-Christmas album “F*ck That”, where she and her chorus of anti-carolers sang:

You wish us a Happy Holidays
But you really mean a merry Christmas

This alternative version would certainly make an interesting placeholder in the cannon of merry carolers this Christmas season. Try it when you go door to door and see how your “audience” responds.

Modern equivalent of “figgy pudding”

Nowadays, however, instead of preparing figgy pudding, there are a number of alternate traditional Christmas desserts. In the United States, the equivalent may be a holiday fruit cake – a traditional dessert which some folks love and others open with disdain every time they receive it. Perhaps contemporary Americans looking to update the song via the folk tradition could change those verses to “bring us some spiked eggnog” or “bring us a chocolate pie now.” Or, you can simply sing the old version the way merry joyous souls spread it around now more than 400 years ago, demanding figgy pudding with the ardent determination of a street protester.