1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wake

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WAKE (A.S. wacan, to " wake " or " watch "), a term now restricted to the Irish custom of an all-night " waking " or watching round a corpse before burial, but anciently used in the wider sense of a vigil kept as an annual church celebration in commemoration of the completion or dedication of the parish church. This strictly religious wake consisted in an all-night service of prayer and meditation in the church. These services, popularly known as " wakes, " were officially termed Vigiliae by the church, and appear to have existed from the earliest days of Anglo-Saxon Christianity. Tents and booths were set up in the churchyard before the dawn which heralded in a day devoted to feasting, dancing and sports, each parish keeping the morrow of its vigil as a holiday. Wakes soon degenerated into fairs; people from neighbouring parishes journeyed over to join in the merry-making, and as early as Edgar's reign (958–975) the revelry and drunkenness had become a scandal. The vigiliae usually fell on Sundays or saints' days, those being the days oftenest chosen for church dedications, and thus the abuse was the more scandalous. In 1445 Henry VI. attempted to suppress markets and fairs on Sundays and holy days. In 1536 an Act of Convocation ordered that the yearly " wake " should be held in every parish on the same day, viz. the first Sunday in October, but this regulation was disregarded. Wakes are specially mentioned in the Book of Sports of James I. and Charles I. among the feasts which should be observed.

Side by side with these church wakes there existed from the earliest times the custom of " waking" a corpse. The custom, as far as England was concerned, seems to have been older than Christianity, and to have been at first essentially Celtic. Doubtless it had a superstitious origin, the fear of evil spirits hurting or even removing the body, aided perhaps by the practical desire to keep away rats and other vermin. The Anglo-Saxons called the custom lich-wake or like-wake (A.S. lic, a corpse). With the introduction of Christianity the offering of prayer was added to the mere vigil, which until then had been characterized by formal mourning chants and recitals of the life story of the dead. As a rule the corpse, with a plate of salt on its breast, was placed under the table, on which was liquor for the watchers. These private wakes soon tended to become drinking orgies, and during the reign of Edward III. the provincial synod held in London proclaimed by its 10th canon the object of wakes to be the offering of prayer for the dead, and ordered that in future none but near relatives and friends of the deceased should attend. The penalty for disobedience was excommunication. With the Reformation and the consequent disuse of prayers for the dead the custom of " waking " in England became obsolete and died out. Many countries and peoples have been found to have a custom equivalent to " waking, " which, however, must be distinguished from the funeral feasts pure and simple.

For detailed accounts of Irish wakes see Brand's Antiquities of Great Britain (W. C. Hazlitt's edition, 1905) under " Irish Wakes."