A Treasury of Christmas Carols

The Victorian Christmas Revival

Part 3. Composition of Carols

The 19th Century was a remarkably fertile period for the creation of Christmas carols; if the 15-16th Century was the First Golden Age of the Carol, this was clearly the Second.  However, the creation was occasionally an unusual matching (at least in the eyes of the contemporaries). The carol "What Child Is This?" is an example of just such a case. The melody is from the Tudor tune "Greensleeves," whose bawdy original lyrics filled with anything but holiday imagery. Later, Shakespeare mentioned the song in The Merry Wives of Windsor during an execution scene. In 1865, William Dix, an Englishman, wrote "The Manger Throne," of which three verses evolved into "What Child Is This?" using this tune.1

It was also at this time in the mid to late 19th century, when we get carols such as O Come all Ye Faithful, Christians Awake and Good King Wenceslas. Quite a few of the Victorian carols were written to traditional carol tunes that had been in use in earlier centuries. During the latter years of the century the church carol services began to be established in the form we know today. In addition some carols have come from abroad, such as Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem and We Three Kings of Orient Are.

Dr. John Mason Neale, a Victorian clergyman and brilliant scholar, wrote "Good King Wenceslas" and used an old Swedish tune from 1592.2 This provided much discussion for the Victorians as to whether or not this was a "proper" carol (and of which still elicits critical comments after over a hundred years). Quite often secular tunes are slowed down to make them more suitable for Christmas and Easter.

Christina_Rossetti.JPG (88503 bytes) Christiana Rossetti, Victorian Poet, 1830-1894

Other "questionable" pieces included "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In", "Good Christian Men Rejoice" (a 19th century version of In dulci jubilo), "Masters of the Hall", and "Ding Dong, Merrily on High". Christmas lullabies included songs like "Silent Night" (composed by an Austrian clergy in 1816), "Away In a Manger" (Philadelphia, USA, 1883), and "In the Bleak Midwinter" (words by Christina Rossetti, 1885, -- seen above -- and tunes by Holst, Darke and others)3. Though not considered "proper" carols at the time they were written, they are worth the title if only to distinguish them from solid hymns like "While Shepherds Watched Their Flock by Night", the 18th century "O Come All Ye Faithful", or "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing". In most cases, by the 21st century, these were considered "traditional" carols or hymns.

Since being published and widely learned in particular settings, melodies to Victorian carols have become popular and recognizable even performed without lyrics. The melodies have taken on lives and meanings of their own in our more secular modern society. Even without the words, these lively, simple melodies convey a sense of tradition and joy that seems in keeping with all that is best about Christmas.


1. 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. Return

2. And thereupon created a firestorm among scholars of Christmas hymns and carols that remains unabated to this day. Elizabeth Poston noted in 1965: "When Dr. John Mason Neale launched Good King Wenceslas in England in 1853, he left us the legacy of one of the classic ribaldries of song, an aftermath which proved to be less felicitous for carols…. Dr. Neal’s words, tritely tricked out as they are with the romantic trimmings of his time, preached a moral tale less acceptable now than it was to the Victorians’ concept of charity to the poor, are harmless enough in themselves, but they debase a splendidly gay and virile dance tune." Other commentators were even less forgiving. But to their credit, both Eric Routley and William E. Studwell are more tolerant. Return

3. The English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti, b. Dec. 5, 1830, d. Dec. 29, 1894, was the sister of Pre-Raphaelite painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Born into a family of intense literary, artistic, and religious interests, she wrote childhood verses that were printed on a private family press and published several poems under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne in The Germ, a short-lived periodical begun in 1850 by her brother William and his friends. In Goblin Market (1862), her first published volume of poetry, she displayed a taste for the fantastic, a brooding melancholy, and a lyric gift that would characterize much of her work. Along with later volumes of poetry, such as The Prince's Progress (1866) and A Pageant (1881), she wrote nursery rhymes and tales for children, including Sing Song (1872) and Speaking Likenesses (1874). Rossetti's deep religious feelings made her a devout Anglican and inspired her to write a wide variety of religious works. See Christmastide Poems of Christina Rossetti. Return

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The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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