A Treasury of Christmas Carols


The Growth of Carols and Caroling

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century helped spur the growth of carols and caroling. And the establishment of the Lutheran Church did much to promote congregational singing. In Germany, Martin Luther wrote and composed his song "From Heaven Above To Earth I Come - Version 1" – among many others -- and is said to have gone caroling with family and friends, singing in four-part harmony, while he accompanied them on his lute.

Although 15th Century English carols maintained their connections with the church -- as evidenced in Latin segments of text ("Make we joy now in this feast, In quo Christus natus est" - See Make We Joy Now In This Fest) – these carols also remained connected with courtly ceremony ("The Boars Head Carol") and with convivial occasions ("Wassail, Wassail, all over the town" - See The Wassail Song - Version 1). "O Come, All Ye Faithful - Version 1" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" are typical of carols used in religious services.

As the movable-type printing press in 1455 was a relatively recent invention, books of carols were unknown in England; most carols survived only in the oral tradition, if at all. However, in 1521,1 Wynkyn de Word, an English printer and successor to William Caxton,2 produced the first known book of carols, Christmasse Carolles. Only two pages survived (Bodlean Library); one contained a version of the "The Boars Head Carol" The colophon runs : "thus endeth the Christmasse caroles newly imprinted at London in Flete Strete at the signe of the Sonne by Wynkyn de Worde the year of our Lord MDXXI."

Another important source was a book written by Richard Hill, a grocer from London, in which he recorded all manner of things that he did not wish to forget from the years 1500 to 1536 – including a number of Christmas carols. The book was found behind a bookcase in about 1850 and is now in the library of Balliol College, Oxford.

A collection of seven carols was printed in London by Richard Kele, c. 1550,3 titled Christmas carroles newely Imprynted. Kele’s volume included a shortened version of the "carol" "The Friar and the Nun," as well as other carols from James Ryman, a Franciscan friar of Canterbury, who created a manuscript containing 119 carols and 166 lyrics -- most of which related to Christmas. Ryman was ordained as an acolyte in 1476 so it's assumed he did most of his composing or collecting in his twenties and early thirties.

In 1562, the Lord Mayor of London gave Thomas Tyndale a license to print "certain goodly carols to be sung to the glory of God." The carols were widely distributed in England through printed "broadsides" (or "broadsheets" or "garlands") -- little leaflets containing three or more carols sold for only one penny. Broadsheets were often illustrated with crude woodcuts, showing nativity scenes.4

Also in 1582, Theodoric Petri produced the influential Piae Cantones Ecclesiasticae et Scholasticae Beterum Episcoporum, containing 73 Latin hymns and tunes, which was reprinted as late as 1679. See: Piae Cantiones A Finnish Treasure of Medieval Songs.5

At the end of the 15th century, carols appeared in a court songbook, The Fayrfax Manuscript, written for three or four voices in a flexible, sophisticated style based on duple (two-beat) rhythm. They are mostly on themes connected with the Passion of Christ, and the words often decisively determine the musical effect. Composers are often mentioned--William Cornyshe, Robert Fayrfax, and John Browne. From a decade or two later survive the only examples of court carols--light songs, apparently of popular origin, in simple versions by court composers, e.g., Henry VIII's "Green groweth the holly."6

In 1642, a collection titled New Christmas Carols was printed; it contained the earliest print carol version of "Greensleeves." A copy may be found in the Bodeian Library. In 1661, a collection titled New Carols for the Mery Time of Christmas was printed in London. [See this extensive note on Greensleeves from William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. London: Chappell & Co., 1859, pp. 227-233.]

Up until the Reformation, most hymns were sung by the priest or another cleric. Except in Germany, the congregation had almost no part in participation in the mass by singing. However, congregational singing of hymns became firmly established with the Protestant Reformation – although more so in Germany, but less so in England. The Hussites of Bohemia published hymnbooks in the vernacular as early as 1501 and 1505, the first in any language. Vernacular hymnology soon became entrenched in Germany, France, and England.

Lutheran Chorale

The earliest chorale collections,7 published at Wittenberg in 1524, were the Achtliederbuch, with eight poems and four melodies,8 and the Enchiridion, edited by Jonas and Lange, containing about three times as much material. Both volumes were intended for congregational singing. Also in 1524, Martin Luther's colleague Johann Walther (1496-1570) published the first collection of polyphonic chorale settings, Geistiche gesangk Buchleyn, which were clearly designed for choirs because of their greater complexity. Michael Praetorius published a printed collection of chorale repertory around 1600, which was widely distributed among Lutheran churches. Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) would continue the Lutheran musical contribution in the next century; he composed 132 hymns.9

The Anglican Psalters

Calvinism bore its first musical fruits in 1562 when John Calvin's Psalter with music by Louis Bourgeois (c.1510-61) was published. In the same year, the complete Sternhold and Hopkins'10 Metrical Psalter, with Tunes for Unison Singing, was published in London by John Day – and would dominate English congregational singing until the 18th century.11 The Calvinist belief was that only psalms, in simple form, should be sung by the congregation – "human hymns" were not admitted to the liturgy. The psalm settings were forced into metrical form, one note per syllable, often at the expense of any clear connection with the original psalm meaning. The spirit of the psalms was retained, but the substance was greatly altered.

For example, Psalm 1 in the King James Version reads:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
|nor standeth in the way of sinners,
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

The New Version of the Psalms of David (1696) by Tate and Brady reads:

How blest is he who ne'er consents by ill Advice to walk.
Nor stands in Sinners ways
nor sits where Men prophanely talk.

The metrical setting here is Common Meter (CM); the number of syllables in each line is shown in the formula A tune in CM has a corresponding number of notes in each line, so any text in that meter may be sung to any tune with the same pattern. Others of the many popular schemes are Short Meter ( and Long Meter ( Reference to the meters and to the names that identify metrical psalms and hymns appear in most modern hymnals as convenient reference marks.

The psalters – to the exclusion of the carol and the hymn – became the dominant form of Christian music through the early 19th century in Great Britain. Even so, the carol could not be obliterated from England. Ian Bradley noted that although carols were no longer heard in church although they continued to be sung elsewhere. Indeed, their popularity was such in the early seventeenth century that one late Victorian antiquarian speculated that the word `carol' was derived from the Latin name (Carolus) of Charles I. In 1619 Launcelot Andrewes used his first Christmas sermon as Bishop of Winchester to extol the glories of a day celebrated "as well as at home with Carolls, as in the Church with Anthemes." An account of domestic Christmas festivities in 1631 describes "the evergreen ivie trimming and adorning the portals ... and the usual carols, to observe antiquitie, cheerefully sounding."


The hymns of early American settlers were also metrical psalms. The Pilgrims preferred Ainsworth's Psalter, printed in Amsterdam in 1612. The Massachusetts Bay Colony also used Ainsworth’s, but generally preferred Day’s Sternhold and Hopkins, and possibly the psalters of Este (1592) and Ravenscroft (1621). These and several other popular collections of that day served until publication of the Bay Psalm Book (1640),12 which remained a popular volume for well over a century. It contained no music until its ninth edition, and then it had only 13 tunes to accommodate the entire contents.

The Virginia settlers likely had the book of Sternhold and Hopkins published by John Day in 1561 and 1562, with possibly Este’s whole Book of Psalms from 1592 or Alison’s Psalter, 1599.

The American public was largely untutored in music, and the practice of "lining out,"13 already known in England, became an important tutorial device. A deacon sang each line, and the congregation repeated it. The practice declined as people learned to use the instructions printed in most books.


1. Some 66 years after the invention of the movable-type printing press. Return

2. William Caxton, b. c.1422, d. 1491, was a merchant and writer who established the first printing press in England, in 1476. About 1471, Caxton visited Cologne, where he learned the art of printing. He later founded a press in Bruges, Belgium, before returning to England. In 1477, Caxton's press at Westminster produced Dictes or Sayenges of the Phylosophers, the first dated book printed in England. Caxton subsequently published more than 90 editions, including works by Chaucer, Gower, and Malory, as well as his own translations of French and Latin works. Return

3. Both Wynkyn de Worde and Richard (or "Rycharde") Kele also printed works by and about the English Poet Laureate John Skelton (c. 1460-1529), who while serving at the English court tutored the future Henry VIII, to whom he would later serve as court orator (he was court poet to Henry VII). See, also, David L. Jeffrey, University of Ottawa, "Early English Carols and the Macaronic Hymn," printed at Research Web Site of the Faculty of Arts, University of Western Ontario for his discussion of Ryman and the macaronic hymn. Return

4. From "A General History of Christmas Carols," The Bible Music Network [Link broken, 8 January 2004]. See . Carol R. Livingston's British Broadside Ballads of the Sixteenth Century, which indexes all of the extant printed sheets of the 16th century. See also Lilly, Joseph, ed. A Collection of Seventy-Nine Black-letter Ballads and Broadsides, printed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, between the years 1559 and 1597. London, 1867. Return

5. A copy of the 1582 edition was acquired by Thomas Helmore and John Mason Neale in the early 1850s. Helmore adapted the carol melodies and Neale either paraphrased the carol lyrics into English or wrote entirely new lyrics. Both the music and words were published in Carols for Christmas-tide in 1853 and Carols for Easter-tide in 1854. Return

6. "Carol" from Encyclopedia Britannica, Return

7. Further information can be found in Appendix B: Early German Lutheran and Reformation Hymnals. Return

8. Percy Scholes, in The Oxford Companion to Music, gives the name as Etlich cristlich lider Lobgesant, with eight hymns and give tunes, edited by Walther. Return

9. See Appendix B: Early German Lutheran and Reformation Hymnals. Return

10. Thomas Sternhold. Attended Oxford, but did not graduate. He became the "Groom of the Robes" of Henry VIII, and retained this office under Edward VI. Sternhold first began his work on the Psalms for his own "Godly Solace" and is said to have sung them while accompanying himself on the organ. Apparently the young Edward VI heard them and asked for them to be repeated in his presence. Edward later provided patronage for Sternhold to work on his Psalms. Sternhold composed his Psalms to be sung as ballads, which he hoped would replace the "amorous and obscene" songs commonly sung by the courtiers. Sternhold died in 1549. Return

John Hopkins. A clergyman and schoolmaster in Suffolk who apparently became Editor of Sternhold's psalter after Sternhold's death. He published a version of the Psalter shortly after Sternhold's death. His name is mentioned as having been one of the exiles during Queen Mary's reign, but his place of exile is unknown, but he re-appeared after the exile and in 1560 he brought a large number of Psalms to Daye's edition of 1560-1561. Hopkins contributed 60 Psalms to the 1562 Psalter, which is more than any other contributor by a considerable margin. All of his Psalms are in Common Metre, like Sternhold's, but they differ in that Sternhold only rhymed the second and fourth lines of his verses, while Hopkins would rhyme both the first and third and the second and fourth lines. Return

Source: CG MusicReturn

11. In 1562 the first complete English psalter was published: The Whole Booke of Psalms, Collected into English Metre by Thomas. Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others: Conferred with the Ebrue, with apt notes to sing them withall. This was the famous "Old Version" psalter of Sternhold and Hopkins that would hold sway over English congregational singing until the 18th century. The Sternhold and Hopkins psalter went through over three hundred editions before 1700. There were other metrical psalters produced during the period--most notably the "New Version" of Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady: A New Version of the Psalms of David. But the "Old Version" retained its primacy in church use.

Nahum Tate (1652-1715). Nahum Tate was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1652. He was educated at Trinity College in Dublin and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1672. Then, he moved to London and made a living writing for the stage. He often worked with others to write or took the work of others and adapted or translated it. Throughout his life, Tate had a problem with intemperance and improvidence. He lived in poverty for most of his life. Nahum Tate died on August 12, 1715 in London.

Nicholas Brady (1659-1726). Nicholas Brady was born on October 28, 1659 at Bandon, County Cork, Ireland. He was sent to England at the age of twelve. While there, he attended Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford. Brady went to Dublin University where he received a Bachelor of Art degree in 1685, and only three years later, he was ordained. He served as a pastor for a number of different parishes in Ireland and England. Brady died on May 20, 1726.

The "New Version" of psalm paraphrases that Nahum Tate and Nathan Brady worked on together was authorized for use in the church in 1696. It was the first to be authorized in 150 years, since the "Old Version" of Sternhold and Hopkins was published. The New Version was considered to be of excellent literary quality, and represented a step towards hymnody, in that it was a freer paraphrase than the Old. Notes from the Hymnuts: Tate,  and Notes from the Hymnuts: BradyReturn

12. The full title was The Whole Book of Psalms faithfully translated into English Metre, whereunto is prefixed a discourse declaring not only the lawfullness, but also the necessity of the heavenly Ordinance of singing Scripture Psalms in the Churches of God. One of the compilers of the Bay Psalm Book was Rev. Richard Mather (1596-1669), who was the father of Rev. Increase Mather (1639-1723) and the grandfather of Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728). The last edition of the Bay Psalm Book was published in America in 1773, 113 years after its initial publication. The last publication in England was in 1754; the last in Scotland was in 1759. Return

13. In America, this was called "Deaconing." See note 22 in next section. Return

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