A Treasury of Christmas Carols


The Restoration

The Post-Puritan Period Before Victoria

By the Elizabethan Period (1558-1603), poets wrote carols of a more polished character. They still dealt with the life of the Christ Child. One of the best of this era would be Nahum Tate’s "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" [1]. This work was more of a transitional piece from true carols to hymns and paved the way for such Methodist Revival [2] hymns as "Hark The Herald Angels Sing - Version 1", "Angels From The Realms of Glory", or "It Came Upon The Midnight Clear". These were made wide spread over the years by careful editors and enterprising publishers.

Likewise, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced many Christmas hymns in German. Among the most well known is "Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen" ("All My Heart This Night Rejoices - Verison 1") was written by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). In addition, music by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was adapted and used as Christmas carols.

Similarly, the English writers gave us "I Sing the Birth Was Born Tonight - Version 1" and "As On The Night Before This Happy Morn", by Ben Johnson (1578-1637) and George Wither (1588-1667), respectively. On Christmas Day in England, these carols took the place of psalms in the churches, especially at afternoon service with the congregation joining in. At the end of the service the parish clerk would usually declare in a loud voice his wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


However, the psalters had became the dominant form of Christian music from the Puritan Period through the early 19th century in England and the United States. However, even during the metrical psalm's popularity, a change was talking place. Dr. Isaac Watts [3], a dissenting clergyman who accepted Calvin's stern viewpoint, published his first book of hymns in 1707, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, and followed with others in the next decade. His "Joy To The World" (from Psalm 98) and "From All that Dwell Below the Skies" (from Psalm 117) paraphrase the psalms with free, imaginative poetry. Other hymns by Watts and such hymns as "Christ Whose Gory Fills the Skies" and "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus" by Charles Wesley [4] are devoid of any psalm connections and are newly created poetry that often paraphrases New Testament ideas.

Watts's verses were anticipated in the England by devotional poetry and by some of the freely paraphrased metrical psalters. Nonetheless, their appearance was an almost revolutionary break with the Calvinist and Roman traditions of strictly regulated corporate worship. Watts soon had his imitators, as well as vociferous detractors. One correspondent to the Gentleman's Magazine wrote that some hymns he quotes "will easily shew, how dangerous it is to give ear to new-fangled notions, and enthusiastic conceit; since we see by these hymns into what degree of nonsensical madness the mind of man may be thrown." It was Watts, ultimately, who set the stage for the explosion of hymnody in the 18th century; without his groundbreaking hymns, the tradition that culminated in the work of the Wesleys, Cowper and Newton, Doddridge, and others might never have taken root.

An abhorrence of hymns of "human composure" had been the reason for the acceptance of metrical psalms for such a long time. The psalms continued to affect England and Scotland for the rest of the 18th century, and the early history of American hymnology reflects their strong influence. Psalm tunes were, by necessity, cast in the same metrical frame as the texts, and the music of many 18th- and early 19-century hymns is not of high quality. Most 17th-century hymns are now sung to modern musical settings.

Lutheran Chorales

The composition of chorales, both texts and tunes, continued into the 17th century. The use of chorale verses and their tunes in cantatas, oratorios, and passions by German composers through the 18th century emphasizes the familiarity these pieces much have had for Lutheran congregations. They were included not for singing by the congregation but as part of the choral composition. As late as the 19th century, it was common for church choirs to walk through the streets during Christmas-tide, singing the German chorales.

In the Americas

In New England, in 1760, a tune book was published which included the music and words to a "Hymn on the Nativity," composed by Englishman William Knapp to the familiar text of Nahum Tate [5]. James Lyon's Urania (1761) contained one of the first original American compositions. These set off a chain of text and music publication that influenced all walks of life for another century. Some composers, including William Billings (1746-1800) [6] and Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), broke away from the metrical psalms and wrote hymns as well as music. Hastings joined others in bringing tunes from abroad, a practice continued by Lowell Mason [7], an influential church musician and educator. Between 1760 and 1799, at least 30 different Christmas songs were published in New England. [8]

In 18th- and 19th-century American volumes, hymns and anthems were intermingled, making it uncertain whether the books were for choir or congregation use. The publication of denominational hymnals in America, as in England, separated hymns from choral music and supplied each group of singers with its own materials for worship.

The Changing Face of English Society

What the Puritans could not do, the Industrial Revolution — which began in the mid 1700s — nearly accomplished. During this time, English society underwent a marked change. World-wide commerce was becoming a reality; James Watt invented the steam engine; Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom. Factories and industrial towns sprang up to meet the demand.

From a largely rural lifestyle, many were now drawn to the city in search of greater economic gains in the factories. But as this happened, the old traditions of the "12 days of Christmas" — from December 25 to January 6 — began to disappear, and nothing was put in place to replace it. That would soon change.


1. Nahum Tate (1652-1715), poet laureate after 1692. Return

2. Methodism is the name given to a group of Protestant churches that arose from the 18th-century Wesleyan movement in England led by John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield. Although centered in the British Isles and North America, Methodism has spread worldwide. The origins of Methodism are inseparable from the careers of the Wesley brothers. In 1738, influenced by the Moravians (see Moravian Church), they organized small "societies" within the Church of England for religious sharing, Bible study, prayer, and preaching. Return

3. Nonconformist minister Isaac Watts, b. July 17, 1674, d. Nov. 25, 1748, has been called the father of English hymnody. As assistant minister (1699) and then pastor (1702) of an Independent congregation at Mark Lane, London, he composed some of his best-remembered hymns, including "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past." He also wrote on such diverse subjects as philosophy, astronomy, and social concerns. Return

4. Charles Wesley, b. Dec. 18, 1707, d. Mar. 29, 1788, was perhaps England's greatest hymn writer. Educated at Oxford, he was ordained in 1735 and went to Georgia as Oglethorpe's secretary. He returned a year earlier than his brother, John Wesley, with whom he co-founded the Methodist Movement. After a religious experience similar to John's, he continued for many years in close association with the Methodist movement. After 1756, however, he left the itinerant ministry and settled first in Bristol and later in London. He wrote more than 5,000 hymns, among them "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling." Return

5. Nissenbaum, p. 34. Presumably "While Shepherds Watched." Return

6. William Billings, b. Boston, Oct. 7, 1746, d. Sept. 26, 1800, best known for his hymns and anthems, was one of the first important native-born American composers. Uneducated and a tanner by trade for most of his life, he was ardently devoted to choral singing. He taught himself the rudiments of music and compensated for his lack of a thorough music education by enthusiasm and a wealth of original ideas; his music is unsophisticated, but it remains fresh and vital. With the spread of singing schools and the rise of the evangelical movement in New England, Billings found a ready market for his folk-like hymn compositions. At the age of 24 he published his first collection of hymns, The New England Psalm Singer (1770), with a frontispiece engraved by Paul Revere. This contained what Billings subsequently described as "fuging tunes," that is, pieces in simple fugal (see fugue), or imitative, style "with each part striving for mastery." His later collections include The Singing Master's Assistant (1778), Music in Miniature (1779), The Psalm Singer's Amusement (1781), and others. All of Billings’ tune books contained Christmas songs. Some of his anthems became popular, particularly "Chester" (as a patriotic song during the Revolutionary War) and "The Rose of Sharon." Source: Notes from the Hymnuts 

William Billings came from a poor family and had little formal education. He worked as a tanner and "sealer of leathers" in Boston and was self-taught in music. A contemporary described him as "a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without an address, and with an uncommon negligence of person." Billings' lack of formal training and personal appearance notwithstanding, he managed to become a well-known teacher of singing in many fashionable Boston churches. Billings published several collections of music, mostly unaccompanied choral anthems in four parts. His 1770 The New England Psalm Singer was the first published collection of wholly American music and the first tune book produced by a single American composer." The books contained significant amounts of instructional material as well, which relied heavily on the writings of the English composer William Tans'ur. Billings' music and his teaching became well-known throughout New England and his music often appeared on programs together with the likes of such other composers as G. F. Handel.

Billings reached the height of his fame in the 1780s, but for reasons unknown today, he suffered a worsening financial position beginning around 1790. He submitted The Continental Harmony, in which the tune "Lewis-Town" appears, for publication in 1791, hoping a new book would improve his financial situation. Unfortunately, the book was not finally published until 1794, and then "under conditions humiliating to the composer." Lack of finances forced Billings to move from his home. He continued teaching singing, although his popularity had dwindled and he taught mostly in small towns, until his death in 1800. Source: "Billings, William" in the New Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 2, pp.703-705. Return

7. For most of the 19th century and part of the 20th, much of America's musical life was influenced by the Mason Family. The founder of this dynasty was Lowell Mason, b. Medfield, Mass., Jan. 8, 1792, d. Aug. 11, 1872. Convinced of the inferiority of American church music, he published in 1822 a collection of his own hymns (the first of some 1,200) based on European models and adaptations from Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and others. Its success – it went through 22 editions in the next 36 years – helped to make him in 1838 superintendent of the music curriculum in Boston public schools. His work set the pattern for music education throughout the United States. Return

8. Nissenbaum, pp. 35-6. For a selection of songs from 1761 to 1894, see Glenn Wilcox, Early American Christmas Music (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 1995). Eight of Billings’ songs are included. Return

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The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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