Published: 18-03-2010, 09:01


Two hundred years ago groups of instrumentalists and singers known as “the waits” roamed the nighttime streets of towns and villages across Britain during the CHRISTMAS SEASON. They stopped in front of houses and performed folk songs, popular tunes, or Christmas Carols. During the two weeks before Christmas the waits sometimes played well into the night, often awakening people asleep in their beds. In return for these seasonal serenades householders were expected to offer the musicians food, drink, or money. In some towns the waits collected these tips by returning at a more reasonable hour in the days that followed, BOXING DAY being a logical choice. In Scotland the waits performed around New Year’s Day rather than Christmas.

In medieval ENGLAND the king required certain of his minstrels to wander through the city streets at night guarding the citizenry and calling out the hour. Collectively known as “the watch,” these court pages gradually evolved into uniformed town employees known as “the waits.” Several theories have been advanced as to the origin of the term “waits.” Perhaps the most popular one claims that “the waits” simply developed from the phrase “the watch.” Others suppose that the term “waits” came from wayghtes, an old English word for the oboe, one of the instruments played by these musical watchmen. Another writer suggests that the term derived from the old Scottish word waith, which means “to wander” or “to roam.”
In the early 1500s the citizens of London recognized the waits by their blue tunics, red sleeves, red hats, and silver collars and chains. Their official duties included playing for the mayor and town officials at feasts and parades, as well as watching over London’s darkened streets. Several accounts dating from around the turn of the eighteenth century report that local youth routinely badgered these town musicians into helping them court their sweethearts with nighttime serenades. Eventually, the night patrols performed by these watchmen were taken over by a regular police force. The waits survived for a time, however, as bands of nighttime singers and instrumentalists.
Perhaps influenced by other Christmas customs, such as wassailing and caroling, the waits eventually adopted the practice of performing songs around Christmas time in exchange for food, drink, or tips (see also WASSAIL; WASSAILING THE FRUIT TREES). Some towns and cities issued licenses to the waits for this purpose. The Christmas time activities of the waits peaked in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. To the dismay of the established members of the waits, however, impromptu groups, often of dubious musical accomplishment, also began to carol at Christmas time in hopes of cashing in on the customary tip. In the town of Westminister the leader of the officially recognized town waits complained to the city magis-trate about the unofficial competition in 1820. Perhaps the dissonant musical offerings made by these amateurs helped to turn public attitudes against the waits. By the late nineteenth century public approval of this and many other seasonal begging practices declined. No longer wanted, either as watchmen or as musicians, the institution of the waits finally disappeared.