Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! We command that the peace of our lady the Queen be well kept by night and day but that all manner of whores, thieves, dice players and other unthrifty folk be welcome to the city, whether they come late or early, at the reverence of the High Feast of Yule till the Twelve Days be past. God save the Queen!

IT was on December 21 - St Thomas's Day - that the ceremony of Yule Riding took place in the City of York. It signified the arrival of Christmas, with its twelve days of merriment. One person adopted the guise of Yule, carrying a leg of lamb and a cake, and another took the role of Yule's Wife. Nuts were thrown into the crowd and the procession was accompanied by loud music.

Yule is now effectively a synonym for Christmas, but originally it was the Norse midwinter festival. Perhaps its late survival in York was a vestige of the city's Viking past. But by the early 1570s such a boisterous celebration as Yule Riding, with its barely concealed pagan symbolism, had become highly offensive to the puritan sensibilities of Archbishop Edmund Grindal. The figures of Yule and Yule's wife, he complained, " ride through the city very undecently and uncomely, drawing great concourses of people after them to gaze, often times committing other enormities".

An anonymous broadside balladeer sprang to the defence of tradition by penning "Yule in York", in which he put a pious Christian gloss on the proceedings. He attempted to persuade his readers - and himself, perhaps - that Yule, far from being a heathen word of Norse origins, was, in fact derived from the Hebrew Yulath, meaning "a babe is born". He also averred that the nuts thrown into the crowd "put us in remembrance of that most noble Nut our saviour's blessed body".

As for the musical accompaniment, the balladeer proclaimed that "the shalme and musicke resemble the mirth and melody of Angels". So although "Yule in York" might have been an outrageous piece of special pleading, the poem does at least tell us that the ceremony of Yule Riding was accompanied by players of shawms, which were the favoured instruments of the city's waits, or salaried musicians.

After the Archbishop's protests, the Yule Riding was banned in 1572. But the winter season saw other rituals in York.

On St Thomas's Day the city's Sheriffs would welcome the arrival of the High Feast of Yule by reading the Yoole-girthol, a remarkably liberal proclamation that "all manner of whores, thieves, dice-players and other unthrifty folk" were welcome in the city during the Twelve Days. This topsy turvy view of law and order can be seen as part of a wider and ancient Christmas, indeed pre-Christian, Saturnalian tradition of "legitimised disorder" which included such anarchic elements as the election of Boy Bishops (a Bairn Bishop in York) and Lords of Misrule.

After its first proclamation, the Yoole-girthol was repeated at the four gates of the city by the Sheriffs' sergeants, preceded by the blowing of a horn. The ritual is recreated at the beginning of this CD.

Somewhat earlier, in mid-November, was the Sheriffs' Riding, a spectacular ceremony in which the by-laws of York were proclaimed at various places throughout the city. The lavish procession was headed by the city's waits, "in their scarlet liveries and silver badges playing all the way through the streets". This custom was long-lived, still being observed in the 18th century, and in recent decades the Sheriffs' Riding has been revived in some particulars, incorporating aspects of the Yoole-girthol ceremony. It takes place on the evening of St Thomas's Day, so that it also provides an echo of the Yule Riding.

Today's York Waits, who aim to recreate the city's band as it was in its Tudor heyday, regularly accompany this latter-day Sheriff's Riding - in which the city's now sole Sheriff and its Lord Mayor participate - and the sound of their shawms means that "the mirth and melody of Angels" is heard again through the frosty winter streets of York.

This recording begins in an English city, evoking an ancient Yuletide ceremony, but soon it sets off on a musical journey throughout renaissance Europe, from elaborate German settings of Christmas melodies to simple, affecting French Noels and songs from the Mediterranean. It nears its conclusion, however, with a wistful English song that laments the end of the Twelve Days - and thus the beginning of the working year. The next Yule Riding seems far, far away…

by William Marshall, from the programme notes for the new York Waits CD
"Yule Riding" (Beautiful Jo Records www.bejo.co.uk).

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