Ever since the Middle Ages people have used the Christmas season to go door-to-door soliciting charity in return for a song or good wishes for the coming year. In Alsace in 1462 visitors dressed as the Magi are recorded as having gone about on the eve of Epiphany. Sixteenth-century English sources noted the custom of the Wassail Wenches on Twelfth Night. In Yorkshire lads used to go “Christmas ceshing” — knocking on the door and shouting “Wish you a Merry Christmas, mistress and master.” Similar English begging visits were called “gooding”. “doling” or “mumping” and often took place on St Thomas Day. Plough Boys go begging on Plough Monday while the Silvesterklausen tradition in Switzerland takes place on New Year’s Eve. Klöpflngehen occurs in south Germany throughout Advent. In North America belsnickling and Newfoundland mumming sought hospitality more than charity. In Brazil the Reisados solicit donations for the celebration of Epiphany.
These visits were framed in such a way that a blessing was always exchanged for money or hospitality. In those cases where a gift was not forthcoming curses were often uttered. In pre-revolutionary Russia carolers sang kolyadki, songs of blessing that could turn into wishes for a bad harvest or sick cattle if little gifts were not forthcoming. On the Greek island of Chios groups of children revile the housewife who has run out of treats to pass out on Christmas Eve: they make uncomplimentary remarks and wish her cloven feet. Their remarks would be hard-pressed to surpass the venom of this malediction found on the Scottish island of South Uist:
The curse of God and the New Year be on you
And the scath of the plaintive buzzard,
Of the hen-harrier, of the raven, of the eagle,
And the scath of the sneaking fox.
The scath of the dog and cat be on you,
Of the boar, of the badger and of the ghoul,
Of the hipped bear and of the wild wolf,
And the scath of the foul polecat.
In central and eastern Europe the Star Boys still parade, though now the money collected is often directed toward Third World development. In the Austrian village of Oberndorf where “Silent Night” was first written, boatmen who were unable to work during the winter months used to go about at Christmas soliciting donations to see them through until spring. The custom died for a time when modern social welfare attitudes were adopted by the government but it was revived in the twentieth-century in a different form. Now groups of men walk round with their lanterns, bells and a Christmas crib atop a pole collecting money for charity. Even though the true begging visit has declined, Christmas is still the season for encouraging charity as shown by the example of the Salvation Army with its street-corner kettles.
Some social historians distinguish between those visitors who are seeking charity — such as the wassail wenches or those doleing or mumping on St Thomas Day — and those after only a spot of hospitality in return for good wishes — these latter they call “luck visits.” Customs such as wassailing or Nwefoundland mumming would fall into this category.