Once upon a time, a wait was a watchman, a word derived from an Old Northern French word that’s related to modern German wachen, to be awake (watch, wait and wake are all linked etymologically). Early senses of the verb included lying in wait for an enemy, observing carefully and being watchful. Watchmen in British towns and cities in medieval times sounded the watch three or four times a night on trumpets, shawms or pipes as a way to show they were alert and to deter thieves.
The term seems to have been transferred to musicians at the end of the thirteenth century. The waits were a group of wind musicians kept at public expense by a town or city. They played on ceremonial or festive occasions and also paraded the streets to entertain the public, sometimes at night or in the early morning as a continuing association with watch calls. Waits were not just for Christmas at this time.
From the latter part of the eighteenth century, the practice of waits being employed by a municipality have slowly died out, though they were finally despatched as an accidental by-product of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which forced towns to publish accounts and demonstrate that they had taken steps to cut out unnecessary expenditure. The name was transferred to self-appointed musicians and singers who perambulated the streets playing and singing carols and other appropriate music at Christmas in hope of reward. In many places, especially rural areas, those who went by the name walked house to house in daylight or evening, as carol singers do now, but others maintained the old tradition of going their rounds at night.
They were considered an abominable nuisance by many, who complained about the discordant nocturnal noises that became one of the perils of Christmas. Jerome K Jerome wrote in The Second Thoughts of An Idle Fellow, “Christmas Waits annoy me, and I yearn to throw open the window and fling coal at them — as once from the window of a high flat in Chelsea I did.” A London footman named William Tayler wrote critically of waits in his diary on 26 December 1837:
These are a set of men that goe about the streets playing musick in the night after people are in bed and a sleepe. Some people are very fond of hearing them, but for my own part, I don’t admire being aroused from a sound sleep by a whole band of musick and perhaps not get to sleep again for an houre or two.
James Greenwood commented in his In Strange Company in 1874 on the oddity of the seasonal occupation of London waits:
Night after night, for ten or a dozen nights, they turn out at an hour when even the public-houses are closed, and nobody is abroad but penniless, homeless wanderers and the police; and they play to houses wrapped in darkness, and to people who, for all they can know to the contrary, are fast asleep, and who, on that ground, may justly repudiate the debt accumulating against them.
He noted that a peculiarity of the waits was that necessarily they had to play and sing on credit (banging on doors in the middle of the night to ask for money would have been unpopular) but that to ask for contributions after the event must have been almost as unrewarding.
Waits have been reintroduced in a few English cities in recent decades.
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