A Treasury of Christmas Carols

The Victorian Christmas Revival

Part 2. Choral Singing and Carol Collections

At this same time, there was a resurgence in singing in England – and specifically in the choral society. Joseph Mainzer (1801-1851) introduced a new technique of massed sight-singing. John Hullah (1812-1884) succeed him and continued the movement. John Curwen (1816-1880) invented a tonic "sol-fa" system. And by 1844, there were no less than 19 societies. This created a huge demand for choral music – secular and sacred. [1] The Oxford Movement of the 1830s and following – mentioned above – was also a part of the musical revitalization. [2]

In early 1822, William Hone wrote: "Carols begin to be spoken of as not belonging to this century, and yet no one, that I am aware of, has attempted a collection of these fugitives." He proceeded to give a listing of the 89 carols he had in his possession: Christmas Carols now annually Printed.

But just as the proof sheets were being returned to Mr. Hone from the printer, the first step was being taken in the Victorian Christmas revival with the publication in 1822 of Some Ancient Christmas Carols (with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England) by Mr. Davies Gilbert, and in 1823 with the publication of Collection of Christmas Carols.

The caroling tradition that had nearly died out was revitalized, but it was a very close thing. Gilbert spoke of the carol as a thing of the past. These Cornish examples were sung "in churches on Christmas Day, and in private houses on Christmas Eve, throughout the West of England up to the latter part of the last century." He wrote:

At seven or eight o'clock in the evening cakes were drawn hot from the oven; cider or beer exhilarated the spirits in every house; and the singing of Carols was continued late into the night. On Christmas Day these Carols took the place of Psalms in all the churches, especially at afternoon service, the whole congregation joining; and at the end it was usual for the Parish Clerk to declare, in a loud voice, his wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy new year to all the parishioners.

Among the songs printed by Gilbert in Some Ancient Christmas Carols included

  • The Lord at First Did Adam Make

  • When God at First Created Man

  • A Virgin Most Pure

  • When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was

  • Hark! Hark! What News the Angels Bring

  • While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night

  • God’s Dear Son Without Beginning

  • Let All That Are to Mirth Inclined

The second volume printed by Gilbert, Collection of Christmas Carols, included these carols:

  • The First Nowell

  • Augustus Caesar Having Brought

  • This New Christmas Carol

  • When Jesus Christ Was Twelve Years Old

  • In These Twelve Days

  • Zacharias Being an Aged Man

  • Now Carol We, and Carol We

  • Hark! All Around the Welkin Rings (later known as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)

  • Saint Stephen Was a Holy Man

  • When Bloody Herod Reigned King

  • When Herod in Jerusalem

More influential was William Sandys (1792-1874), also with strong Cornish connections, who published Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern in 1833 [3] and Christmastide: Its History, Festivities and Carols in 1852. Like Gilbert, Sandys wrote of the carol as a nearly lost institution. Sandys wrote in his Introduction

In many parts of the kingdom, especially in the northern and western parts, the festival is still kept up with spirit among the middling and lower classes, though its influence is on the wane even with them; the genius of the present age requires work and no play, and since the commencement of this century a great change may be traced. The modern instructors of mankind do not think it necessary to provide popular amusements, considering mental improvement the one thing needful."

In Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern a total of 80 carols were published, but only 18 carol tunes. Among the included carols were:

  • A Virgin Most Pure

  • Christmas Eve

  • The First Nowell

  • God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

  • Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

  • I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In

  • Joseph Was An Old Man (part 1 of the "Cherry Tree Carol")

Sandys' 144 page introduction contained other interesting observations concerning the practice of caroling at the beginning of the 19th century.  This excerpt contains some additional observations. Hugh Keyte in The New Oxford Book of Carols provided historical information about both Gilbert and Sandys in Appendix 4 of NOBC. Also see William E. Studwell and Dorothy E. Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music (New York: Haworth Press, 1998).

That both Gilbert and Sandys were from Cornwall was important, since that part of England had remained more agricultural than other areas of the country which was rapidly moving into the Industrial Age, to the detriment of older customs, including caroling.

Although neither published a large number of carols, both formed the basis of Victoria collections for the rest of the century. In addition, the tradition of collecting the folk music of Great Britain would inspire generations of collectors, including Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Lucy Broadwood in the early years of the 20th century.

Thomas Wright published Specimens of Old Christmas Carols  selected from MSS and printed books in 1841, and Songs and Carols now first printed from manuscript of the 15th century in 1847. Both were published by the Percy Society, and were considered seminal collections by later collections, including the one by "Joshua Sylvestre" (below).

Edward F. Rimbault's Little Book of Carols, 1846, and Old Christmas Carols, 1863 (further collection 1865) were highly regarded as well. Rimbault included was "The Praise of Christmas", among others.

The Oxford Movement [7] and the translation of Greek and Latin hymns by Edward Caswall (1814-78) and John Mason Neale (1818-66) brought a high level of poems to Anglicans. The first significant break from the Psalter tradition was Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861); quite popular, during the first 53 years of its publication, it sold more than 60 million copies.

In 1853, Thomas Helmore and Rev. John Mason Neale (shown right) published Carols for Christmas-tide. [4] Some of the Christmas songs included in this volume include

  • Good King Wenceslas

  • Come, O Come, Emmanuel

  • Good Christian Men, Rejoice

  • Christ Was Born on Christmas Day

  • Come, Thou Redeemer of Earth

  • Gabriel’s Message

  • Creator of the Stars of Night

  • From Church to Church

  • Of the Father’s Love Begotten

  • Royal Day That Chaseth Gloom

William Henry Husk's Songs of the Nativity (London: John Camden Hotten, 1855/1863, reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973) was a widely regarded collection. Husk reported that carols were still sung, but that the Broadsides showed that their printers, especially in London, "find the taste of their customers rather incline towards hymns, mostly those in use amongst dissenting congregations, rather to the genuine Christmas carol." The link above will take you to the Index of Carols and Introduction.

In 1858 Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) released Lyra Germanica: The Christian Year, translations of many of the best hymns and carols from Germany. Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology wrote that Winkworth's translations are "invariably faithful, and for the most part both terse and delicate." Martineau wrote that they were "the most widely used of any from that language, and have had more to do with the modern revival of the English use of German hymns than the versions of any other writer." Subsequently, a Second Edition was published in 1859, with a promised choral version to be produced under the direction of Professor Sterndale Bennett ("and will be adapted for use in choirs and families").  Finally, Winkworth also published Christian Singers of Germany (1869). Julian's described it as a "charming biographical work" featuring more translations of German poetry and hymnody: "admirable art applied to the management of complex and difficult versification."

Joshua Sylvestre (or Sylvester) in circa 1861 authored A Garland of Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern ... some never before printed (London, John Camden Hotten) was another well-received and often reprinted collection (with good notes). The editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols hold the opinion that "Sylvestre" was a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Henry Husk and William Sandys. The link above will take you to the Table of Contents and Introduction. "Sylvestre" recognized four important collections prior to this publication: Davies, Sandys, Rimbault, and Wright (see above)

By 1871, Rev. Henry Ramsden Bramley and Sir John Stainer had published Christmas Carols, New and Old, with a total of 42 carols (comprising the First and Second Series) [5]. A third series came out in 1878, which expanded to 70 carols. Carols from this collection which are still known today include

  • The First Nowell

  • God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

  • Jacob's Ladder

  • See Amid the Winter’s Snow

  • Once In Royal David’s City

  • The Wassail Song (Yorkshire version)

  • When Christ Was Born of Mary Free

  • What Child Is This?

A scan of Christmas Carols, Old and New (the combined publication of the First and Second Series in 1871) can be found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. I have retyped the words to the carols, plus those from the Third Series; see Bramley and Stainer Table of Contents.

Rev. Richard Robert Chope’s Carols for Use in Church was first printed in 1875 and contained 112 carols, although it contained fewer Christmas carols than did Bramley and Stainer. The second edition ("The Complete Edition") in 1894 contained 215 carols, 153 of which were identified as Christmas, Epiphany or other holiday season carols; see Table of Contents - Chope. At the end of the 1894 edition, Chope made mention of the rise of the carol services in England, and included six settings: Carol Services 1 and Carol Services 2. The 1894 edition also contained a marvelous Introduction by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould. William Studwell and Dorothy Jones describe Chope as "a leading propagator of the Christmas carol .... [F]or sheer volume, for mass dissemination to the general public, no one in the 19th century matched Richard Robert Chope." [6] Baring-Gould noted that although the Epiphany carol has disappeared, it was slowly being revived.

It was during that time that the celebration of Christmas carols boomed in England. The clergy all over England enthusiastically taught them to their parishioners. And that vibrancy continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States. The carol was tied more strictly to the Christmas season (as opposed to spring, summer and harvest seasons) in the 19th century, and Christmas songs from other countries also began to be included in the category of carols. During the nineteenth century, carols were mostly on a religious topic , while in the twentieth century — especially in the United States after World War II — they most often concerning themselves with Christmas-related myths, customs, and sentiments.

A writer in The Guardian during 1875 wrote that "During the last few years carol-singing has been extensively revived. It had never indeed quite died out in our rural districts, in which roughly printed broadsides, with grotesque woodcuts were, and are to this day, annually purchasable at the village shop….their circulation is enormous and [the printers] deserve our gratitude, for they have sustained the very existence of some of the most beautiful carols during the long period of neglect at the hands of musicians and men of letters."

Since at least the mid 16th Century, carols were printed in England [8] on sheets of paper called "Broadsides" which sold for one penny. They were easy to read and made it simple for average people to sing together. Although crudely printed in many cases, they helped to perpetuate the words and music of traditional carols in the absence of other printed resources.

Other notable 19th Century collections included: [9]

  • Christmas Carols with appropriate music, and an introductory account of the Christmas Carol. London. 1833, 4to.

  • J. W. Parker, Christmas Carols and sacred Songs. London,

  • John Broadwood, transcribed wassail songs, 1843.

  • Anonymous. A Good Christmas Box. 1847. Included "Lamb of God," although this is more frequently sung at Passiontide and Easter.

  • W. W. Fyffe, Christmas: its Customs and Carols. London, c. 1865.

  • A. H. Bullen, Carols and Poems. 1885. Included "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," which Bullen called "the most popular of Christmas Carols."

  • J. A. Fuller Maitland and W. S. Rockstro. Thirteen English Carols of the Fifteenth Century from a MS roll in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, c. 1890.

  • W. D. V. Duncotnbe. A Collection of Old English Carols as sung at Hereford Cathedral, 1893.


1. Routley, pp. 170-171. Return

2. See also Routley, pp. 171-173. Return

3. In 1998 I located a copy of Sandys’ Christmas Carols; the cost was $US 240! In April, 2002, I was able to acquire a repaired copy for $US 87. Return

4. Based primarily, as noted above, on Theodoric Petri’s Piae Cantiones, 1582. Return

5. A scan of this volume was posted at the web site Christian Classics Etheral Hymnary, and is printed separately. I have subsequently obtained copies of all three series, the contents of which are reproduced on this site. All three series may still be obtained at a reasonable cost from booksellers in England; regrettably, they are virtually unknown in the United States. Return

6. See William E. Studwell and Dorothy E. Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music (New York: Haworth Press, 1998), pp. 35-38. Return

7. A movement to reform the Church of England begun at Oxford University in 1833, the Oxford movement was led by John Keble, John Henry Newman, and Richard Hurrell Froude. All were fellows of Oriel College, Oxford, passionately loyal to the church, and deeply disturbed by the British government's interference in its affairs. In addition, they were influenced by the patristic writings and attracted to the ritual and worship of the early and medieval church. Return

8. Frank Kidson wrote that in France, Christmas carols were hawked about the streets in the 13th century. Source: Frank Kidson, "Noel" as found in J A Fuller Maitland, ed., Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1910) , Volume III, M to P (first edition 1907), found at the web site of Musical Traditions: The Magazine for Traditional Music Throughout The World." Kidson was called the "Sherlock Holmes of Music" by his contemporaries and was one of the founding members of the English Folk Song Society. His interest in collecting English folk music dated to the 1880s. In 1981, he published Traditional Tunes, establishing himself as one of the pioneers of song collection from the oral tradition in England. This biographical information was created by John Francmanis in his 1997 PhD thesis on Frank Kidson called "The Musical Sherlock Holmes." Return

9. Significant portions of this list were printed by Frank Kidson, "Noel", as found in J A Fuller Maitland, ed., Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1910) , Volume III, M to P (first edition 1907), found at the web site of Musical Traditions: The Magazine for Traditional Music Throughout The World." See also "The Development of the Christmas Carol" A Victorian Christmas. Return


For more information about many of these compilers, see  William E. Studwell and Dorothy E. Jones, Publishing Glad Tidings: Essays on Christmas Music (New York: Haworth Press, 1998).

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