A Treasury of Christmas Carols


The 20th Century

Part 1. Collections of Carols

The collecting of carols – especially those with a folk background – picked up its pace in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Folk Song Society was founded on June 16, 1898; one of its first vice presidents was Sir John Stainer and one of the founders was Frank Kidson. Between 1898 and 1904, the Society issued five publications. Early notable members were Cecil James Sharp, Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Up to December 1909, 13 ‘Journals’ were issued, each usually greater in length than its predecessor.

This organization merged in 1932 with the English Folk Dance Society (founded in 1911 by Cecil Sharp, who collected, among others, "The Somerset Carol," which was taught to Sharp around 1910 in Bridgewater, Somerset). The organization’s new name is the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The success of the English Folk Song Society spurred the creation of similar organizations in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Canada, and the United States. One of many carols collected and printed by the Folk Song Society was "The Sussex Carol," traced to the mid-19th century streets of Dublin.

The early decades of the 20th century in England also saw the rise of denomination hymnals and the emergence of "mission" hymns.

In the United States, a significant – but largely unavailable – collection of carols was issued in 19 volumes from 1924 through 1947 by the Carol Society of New Haven, Connecticut, primarily under the editorship of Edward Bliss Reed. The series functionally ended with his death. In total, the Society printed 152 folk carols from many cultures, frequently eight carols per year (volume). Regrettably, only a limited number of volumes were printed; it is unknown if some kind soul has created a single volume containing all the carols of the series.

Percy Dearmer.GIF (64134 bytes) Percy Dearmer

Probably the most notable published collection of carols of the early 20th century was The Oxford Book of Carols (OBC) in 1928 (revised in 1964), edited by Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw. It was noted for its breadth of coverage, scholarship, and detailed, informative notes. It is still widely available.

Ralph_Vaughan_Williams.JPG (106633 bytes) Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958 [1]

It's successor from the Oxford Press was The New Oxford Books of Carols (1992), edited by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott which expanded the scope of the previous work by including selected hymns such as "Silent Night" which the OBC excluded on the grounds that they were not "carols." This volume, too, is noted for its scholarship and notes.

Two important predecessors were by Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw: English Carol Book, 1913, and English Carol Book, Second Edition, 1919. Vaughan Williams and Shaw would collaborate again in 1954 with the publication of English Traditional Carols, Oxford University Press. In particular, Vaughan Williams [2] was an avid collector of English folk carols from 1903 and onwards, and made significant contributions to The Oxford Book of Carols in this area and well as others.

Another predecessor to this series might be The English Hymnal (1906) which was edited by Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams (with important contributions from Martin Shaw). This volume combined the best of plainsong, psalm tunes, and chorales in one volume.

A difficult to obtain collection is Rev. Charles L. Hutchins[3] Carols Old and Carols New published in 1916 (Boston: Parish Choir). It was an enormous volume of 751 carols, about 63% if which were related to Christmas. It was (and is) the largest collection ever published in an English-speaking country [4]. Regrettably, it was a limited publication of just 1,000 numbered and signed volumes, and was eclipsed when the Oxford Book of Carols was issued only a few years later. [5]

Sir Richard Runciman Terry [6] edited and published Two Hundred Folk Carols in 1933. Like the Routley collection (below), this was a hard-bound version based on a series of pamphlets. It contained an unusually broad selection of carols from different geographic areas. Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain, but would be an immensely valuable addition to any collection. The original publisher was Burns, Oates & Washbourne of London [7]. Other editions by Terry are Gilbert and Sandys’ Christmas Carols (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, date unknown) and A Medieval Carol Book (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, circa 1931).

Another important collection was published in 1935 by Richard Leighton Greene, The Early English Carol, which contained a total of 474 carols. In 1962, he edited A Selection of English Carols, that contained 100 specimens. He stated that the book "is in part an abridgement of the editor's collection published in 1935, The Early English Carols, and in part a presentation of new material." Neither volume limited itself to carols appropriate to the Christmas season, but included many other samples, including the passion, satirical carols, amorous carols, etc.

Eric Routley, 1917-1982

Eric Routley is editor of the University Carol Book: A Collection of Carols from Many Lands for All Seasons (London: H. Freeman & Co., 1961), an excellent collection containing more than half of the 217 carols printed in the pamphlet series of the same name, with a good deal of the balance from Terry (see above).

Elizabeth Poston published two collections of Christmas carols in her lifetime, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols and The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (New York and Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1965 and 1970, respectively). Both are sound collections, with excellent notes and sharply-worded opinions. The second collection limits itself to songs written in North America. Regrettably, neither is currently in print. The last book which she co-edited with Malcolm Williamson was published after her death: A Book of Christmas Carols (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1988). Elizabeth Poston and David Holbrook co-edited The Cambridge Hymnal (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1967).

Henry W. Simon [8] edited A Treasury of Christmas Songs and Carols in 1973, which was hailed by observers both for its breadth of carols and for the meticulous notes accompanying the text.

A unique collection of early American carols is found in Glenn Willcox’s Early American Christmas Music (1995). It explores an area previously uncharted by most collectors.

More recently is an excellent collection by Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (1999). Also by Bradley is the Penguin Book of Hymns (1989). Both collections contain only the words and excellent historical notes; no music is printed.

Specialized collections have been printed by Oxford University Press, under the title Carols for Choirs. This series includes four volumes published from 1961 to 1980, plus 100 Carols for Choirs published in 1987 (which included selections from the previous volumes 1, 2, and 3, as well as 26 new carols. All are still available from the Oxford University Press.

Other important 20th century collections include:

  • George Ratcliffe Woodward, ed., The Cowley Carol Book (First Series), 1901, Second Edition, 1902; The Cowley Carol Book for Christmas, Easter and Ascentiontide, Second Series, 1919; Songs of Syon, 4th ed., 1923. The latter contains a number of Advent carols, which are not included in the Crowley Carol Books. The Preface to the Revised and Expanded First Series includes interesting background to the series, including his debt to Rev. John Mason Neale and Rev. Thomas Helmore.

  • Rev G. Hill. Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols, 1904. Also Folk Song Society's Publications (part 7), English Country Songs, etc.

  • Cecil Sharp, Folk Songs from Somerset, Five volumes, 1904-1909, English Folk-Carols, 1907, One Hundred English Folksongs, 1916, reprinted by Dover Publications, New York. Sharp had considerable output, not all of which is noted here. The complete manuscript collection, published only on microfilm, includes 4,977 tunes.

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams, Eight English Traditional Carols (London: Stainer and Bell, Ltd., 1919)

  • George K. Evans and Walter Ehret, eds., International Book of Christmas Carols (Prentice-Hall, 1963; reprinted by S. Greene Press, 1980. Evans’ notes are particularly good, as well as the sheer breadth of the collection. Recommended by William Studwell.

Finally, several publishers continue to print large collections of Christmas music – including Mel Bay Publications, the Hal Leonard Corporation, and Warner Brothers Publications. You’ll find these collections both on the web sites for these publishers, as well as in your local music stores. These are good sources for contemporary carols, still under copyright, which cannot otherwise be legally obtained. Illegal copies may be widely found on the Internet.

One of the side-effects of the collection of folk carols during this time is the revelation that a good set of lyrics may have numerous scores; and a good score may have many variations of lyrics [9]. Even a carol as recent as "Away In A Manger" (1885) may have numerous musical settings [10]. The carol that you grew up with — especially if it is popular one — may have other music attached to it. And a familiar tune may have different words. This is especially true when comparing U.S. and British collections of carols. The preferred British version may be almost unknown in the United States, and vice versa. In England, "…each village had its own store of carols, and nothing would induce one village to appropriate the Carols of another." Even today, in many parts of Yorkshire and Derbyshire, "While Shepherds Watched" is rarely heard to the nationally known tune Winchester Old, instead it occurs in dozens of different versions - including highly ornate settings like Pentonville and Lyngham, England. [11]

It is also the case that there may be several versions of a particular hymn or carol. This can arise for several reasons: Let us take the hypothetical case of an old carol, printed for example in the 16th century.  Variations from the original might occur for several reasons.

  1. Due to different theological beliefs, the language of a particular verse might not correspond to the belief system of the editor of the hymnal. Accordingly, the editor would change the language of the verse to correspond to the beliefs of his or her denomination.

  2. The words of a particular verse may be especially awkward.  The editor might then change the words to maintain the sentiment, but provide a more attractive set of lyrics.

  3. The original copy might have been damaged.  At that point, the editor can only guess at the right word or phrase.  A good example of this can be found in the article by Gordon Cox, The Christmas Carolling Tradition of Green's Harbour, Trinity Bay, New Foundland, found in the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music (1975). Discussing verse 5 of a version of "The Moon Shines Bright", Mr. Cox noted that the original "was very dog-eared and not all the words were decipherable, so some were changed or made up." See also Edward Bliss Reed, Christmas Carols Printed in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932).

  4. Many ancient carols were preserved only in an oral tradition, and errors can creep in both in the initial learning of the carol, as well as in the remembering of the carol. As Routley noted, "The words and tunes resided for anything up to ten generations -- perhaps longer -- in the corporate memory of a fast-dying agricultural English peasantry. Nobody knows whether what we sing are the original version of tunes or of words. Sometimes parallel versions exist, sometimes a given set of words was sung to one tune here and another there." [11a]

In addition to collections of carols, there have been a number of notable books issued about Christmas carols and hymns, including:

  • Edmondstoune Duncan, The Story of the Carol (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), reprinted by Omnigraphics, Detroit, MI, 1992. Interesting, but not well organized. If a copy falls in your lap, take it, but don’t spend a large amount of time or money to obtain one.

  • Eric Routley [12], The English Carol (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). A better choice than Duncan. Thoughtful and well organized. Includes many carols in the text. Not currently in print by Oxford University Press (OUP). Also by Routley is the University Carol Book: A Collection of Carols from Many Lands for All Seasons (London: H. Freeman & Co., 1961), an excellent collection containing more than half of the 217 carols printed in the pamphlet series, with a good deal of the balance from Terry. Routley's photograph is reproduced above.

  • Douglas Brice, The Folk-Carol of England (Herbert Jerkins, 1967)

  • William E. Studwell, Christmas Carols: A Reference Guide (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985). A true reference book (set in Courier – as though created on a typewriter), but extremely difficult to obtain. Gives date/author/tune to 789 carols. I obtained a copy after a two year search of local bookstores and the Internet. Don’t bother contacting the publisher; they were unhelpful in the extreme.

  • William E. Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995). Still available in 2000, and get your copy while you can. A very readable book consisting of essays of the origins of many Christmas carols and hymns.

  • William E. Studwell and Dorothy E. Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music (New York: Haworth Press, 1998). Primarily a source of biographies of individuals instrumental in the collection and publication of Christmas carols and hymns. Contains information that is otherwise difficult to obtain.

  • Albert J. Menendez and Shirley C. Menendez, Christmas Songs Made in America (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 1999). Similar to Studwell’s The Christmas Carol Reader, with an (obvious) emphasis on American (U.S.) carols. Well done.

  • Ernest K. Emurian, Stories of Christmas Carols (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1958). Similar to The Christmas Carol Reader, although not as deep.

  • Kenneth W. Osbeck, Joy To The World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999). Essays as described, but without the depth of other such collections; frequently includes a mini-homily. At US$9, a fair, if light-weight, bargain.


1. Ralph Vaughan Williams, b. Oct. 12, 1872, d. Aug. 26, 1958, was an English composer, also active at various periods of his career as organist, conductor, lecturer, teacher, editor, and writer. His influence on the development of 20th-century music in England was immense. By reaching back into the music of Tudor times and delving into the treasury of folk music, he infused his own works with tradition, creating a truly contemporary idiom whose roots were solidly planted in the cultural soil of his country. A concise, contemporary biography is Simon Heffer, Vaughan Williams (London: Phoenix, 2000). See also Studwell and Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings, pp. 63-66. For information concerning Percy Dearmer, see pp. 59-62; for information concerning Martin Shaw, see pp. 67-72. Return

2. Vaughan Williams reportedly hated his given name, Ralph, and preferred to be called "Rafe." Return

3. Rev. Hutchins was a frequent editor of hymnals and related materials, including Sunday School Hymnal and Service Book (Boston: Parish Choir, 1892; alternate title Hymnal and Service Book for Sunday Schools Edition), Church Hymnal (Boston: Parish Choir, 1887, reprinted 1892; revised and enlarged, 1894, with reprintings in 1898, 1899, 1904, 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1925; alternate title: The Chant and Service Book). Return

4. Excluding the editor’s personal collection, which has not been published in book form. The printed version in the editor's study is approximately five feet wide, making it unlikely to be published in the traditional sense. Publication to the World Wide Web seemed to be the only feasible means of dissemination. Return

5. William E. Studwell and Dorothy E. Jones Publishing Glad Tidings (New York: Haworth Press, 1998), pp. 105-113. Return

6. Sir Richard Runciman Terry, 1865–1938, English organist and musicologist. He was organist and choir director (1901–24) of the Westminster Cathedral Choir School. The vision of Cardinal Vaughan, the original founder of the Cathedral, gave great weight to music. He had been much inspired by the revival of Gregorian chant at Solesmes Abbey in France and was also influenced by the Anglican cathedral choir tradition. Accordingly, the establishment of a first-class choir at Westminster, supported by a residential choir school, became an early priority. The first group of young choristers was assembled a year before the cathedral opened, under the direction of the visionary Richard (later Sir Richard) Runciman Terry, the first Master of Music. Cardinal Vaughan addressed the boys when he welcomed them to the cathedral: "You are the foundation stones"..

Sir Terry wrote the music to the hymn, 'Praise to the Holiest in the height' (words by John Henry Newman) The hymn was played on June 25, 1999 at the funeral mass of Cardinal George Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminister.

Terry studied and made collections of early English church music and edited the Westminster Hymnal (1912), the official hymnal for Roman Catholic use in England. He is author of Catholic Church Music (1907) and The Music of the Roman Rite (1931). He edited a reprinting of The Scottish Psalter of 1635.



7. See Studwell and Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings, pp. 115-119. Return

8. See Studwell and Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings, pp. 85-87. Return

9. This was especially so in the 17th century, when from six to twelve came to be considered a sufficient number of tunes for any ordinary church. Return

10. 41 tunes according to research conducted by Richard S. Hill, who published his results under the title of Not So Far Away In A Manger: Forty One Settings of an America Carol in the Music Library Association's Notes, December 1945 (Volume III. No. 1).. Hill clarified a numerous misconceptions about this carol. See the notes in Keyte and Parrott, The New Oxford Book of Carols and Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader. Return

11. From "Regional and Historical Carols From Across England", the liner notes to A Garland of Christmas, a Christmas CD by Coope Boyes & Simpson (1 November 1998). Return

11a. Eric Routley, The University Carol Book (Brighton: H. Freeman & Co., 1961), Introduction, page vi. Here's a humorous story which illustrates the issues surrounding "what I heard was...":

Years ago a friend, and proud papa, showed me a picture his youngest son had drawn in Sunday school of the night Jesus was born. It was a wonderful picture that only a 5-year-old could have drawn. All the barn animals were colored in. Mary looked angelic. Joseph looked tired and worried. Baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and crying. The three Wiseman were all wearing royal robes and carrying their gifts.

And then there was a character I didn't recognize. He was a short, bald, very fat man who was looking down lovingly on the Baby Jesus.

"Who is that?" I asked my friend pointing to the little bald man in the picture.

"Him?" said my friend with a great big grin. "I asked my son the same question."


"Well, that's Round John Virgin of course."

Note: According to Bill Egan, this story first appeared in "Reader's Digest" about 40 years ago (e.g., circa 1964). Also according to Bill, it comes up on more than 600 web sites via a Google ™ search.


12. Erik Routley was born on October 31, l9l7, at Brighton, England. He went to Magdalen College, Oxford. After studying at Mansfield College, he was ordained in 1943, at Trinity Congregational Church, Wednesbury, Dartford, in Edinburgh. Later he became the pastor at Dartford Congregational Church. In l948, he was appointed tutor and lecturer on church history at Mansfield College. In 1952, he completed his Ph.D. degree at Oxford. His thesis was The Music of Christian Hymnody. It was published in 1957. He also served at Augustine-Bristo Congregational Church in Edinburgh, and at St. James's Congregational Church at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was elected president of the Congregational Church of England and Wales in 1970, for one year. He came to the United States in 1975 and was Professor and Director of Music at Princeton Theological Seminary. He also became Professor of Church Music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton and became the director of the chapel.

Routley was well-known and respected in the fields of hymnody and church music. He has published many books. They include: the Church and Music, 1950; The English Carol. 1958; Church Music and Theology, 1959; Music and Profane, 1960; University Carol Book, 1961, Hymns Today and Tomorrow, 1964; Twentieth Century Church Music 1964; The Musical Wesleys and Words, Music, and the Church in 1968; Exploring the Psalms, 1975; and Church Music and the Christian Faith, 1978. He was secretary of the committee that prepared Congregational Praise, 1951; principal editorial consultant of Cantate Domino, third edition, 1974, the hymnal of the World Council of Churches. He was also editor of Westminster Praise and its companion. He was editor of the Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain, from 1948-1974. He has published hymn texts and hymn tunes as well as numerous articles. He is considered by many to be the father of the 20th century "hymn explosion." He died in 1982. Notes from the Hymnuts and Studwell and Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings, pp. 89-94. Return

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