The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885)

It is a commonplace with poets to lament over the degeneracy of the times. Even Homer thought the world was in a parlous state, for he twits his countrymen with their feebleness, protesting that two picked men could hardly lift on to a waggon the stone which Hector brandished with ease. The aged ploughman in Lucretius envies the fortune of his forefathers, who gained a comfortable livelihood from a scanty patch of ground; and the sorrowful vineplanter wearies Heaven with his complaints, perceiving not (says the poet) that all things little by little are wasting away by length of days and faring towards the grave. Evermore rises the same wail over the poverty of present times, and evermore we look back wistfully to the past.

As one turns the pages of Herrick’s “Hesperides,” how grey and colourless appears the England of to-day! We have become so serious, so demure, so respectable; we are resolved that the game of life is a desperately earnest business; we read Mr. Shorthouse. “I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes!” wrote Herrick. Alack, nous avons changé tout cela. Instead of dancing with Julia round a May-pole, he would be expected to attend a May-meeting at Exeter Hall. Flush-cheeked, curly-haired Robin Herrick at a May-meeting! After such an experience he would never have called Devonshire “dull.” Country life, as depicted in the “Hesperides,” appears to have been one perpetual round of merry-making. Morris dances, Whitsun ale, twelfth-tide kings and queens, stool-ball, shearing-feasts, mummeries, wassailings, shrovings, and the like, are the subjects of the poet’s song. It is hard, very hard, in this last quarter of the nineteenth century to realise the life that Herrick led. Perhaps on a closer view much of the brightness of the vision would fade away; but still we can never banish the feeling that something has been lost of the old delight in life, the old buoyancy and freshness that possessed men’s hearts before the Puritans gained the mastery.

Such reflections forcibly suggest themselves as Christmastide draws near. We still twine the holly and we still eat mince-pies. In one or two colleges the boar’s head is still served up with mustard. But who now-a-days sets a swan on the Christmas board, or who a sturgeon? Where will you find. “the carcasses of three fat wethers bruised for gravy to make sauce for a single peacock”?1 That delightful writer, Nicholas Breton, in his “Fantasticks” (1626), brings vividly home to us the Christmas festivities of the early seventeenth century: —

“It is now Christmas, and not a cup of drink must pass without a carol; the beasts, fowl, and fish come to a general execution, and the corn is ground to dust for the bakehouse and the pastry: cards and dice purge many a purse, and the youth show their agility in shoeing of the wild mare: now, good cheer, and welcome, and God be with you, and I thank you — and against the New Year provide for the presents — the Lord of Misrule is no mean man for his time, and the guests of the high table must lack no Wine: the lusty bloods must look about them like men, and piping and dancing puts away much melancholy: stolen venison is sweet, and a fat coney is worth money: pit-falls are now set for small birds, and a woodcock hangs himself in a gin: a good fire heats all the house, and a full alms-basket makes the beggar’s prayers: — the maskers and the mummers make the merry sport, but if they lose their money their drum goes dead : swearers and swaggerers are sent away to the ale-house, and unruly wenches go in danger of judgment: musicians now make their instruments speak out, and a good song is worth the hearing. In sum it is a holy time, a duty in Christians for the remembrance of Christ and custom among friends for the maintenance of good fellowship. In brief I thus conclude it : I hold it a memory of the Heaven’s love and the world’s peace, the mirth of the honest, and the meeting of the friendly. Farewell.”

It is pleasant by the fireside to linger over such a description as that; to try to realise the nut-brown mirth that reigned at Christmastide three centuries ago. Sir John Reresby has left us an interesting account of how he used to observe Christmas. “I returned,” he writes2 in 1684, “to Thrybergh, by God’s mercy, in safety, to keep Christmas amongst my neighbours and tenants. I had more company this Christmas than heretofore. The four first days of the new year all my tenants of Thrybergh, Brinsford, Denby, Mexborough, Hooton Roberts, and Rotherham dined with me; the rest of the time some four-score of gentlemen and yeomen with their wives were invited, besides some that came from York; so that all the beds in the house and most in the town were taken up. There were seldom less than four-score, counting all sorts of people, that dined in the house every day, and some days many more. On New Year’s Day chiefly there dined above three hundred, so that whole sheep were roasted and served up to feed them. For music I had four violins, besides bagpipes, drums, and trumpets.”

Nobody could grudge broad acres to a landowner who so well understood hospitality. On another occasion,3 in 1682, the festivities were on a less lavish scale. There assembled on Christmas Eve nineteen of the poorer tenants from Denby and Hooton; on Christmas Day twenty-six of the poorer tenants from Thrybergh, Brinsford, and Mexborough; on St. Stephen’s Day farmers and better sort of tenants to the number of fifty-four; on St. John’s Day forty-five of the chief tenants; on the 30th of December eighteen gentlemen of the neighbourhood with their wives; on the 1st of January sixteen gentlemen; on the 4th twelve of the neighbouring clergymen; and on the 6th seven gentlemen and tradesmen. Among the guests who lay at the house were “Mr. Rigden, merchant of York, and his wife, a handsome woman,” and “Mr. Belton, an ingenious clergyman, but too much a good fellow.” How gentle is the censure conveyed in the words “too much a good fellow!” Sir John adds : “The expense of liquor, both of wine and others, was considerable, as of other provisions, and my friends appeared well satisfied.” So they ought to have been. But all landlords were not like Sir John Reresby, and he tells us himself that few of the gentry in his part of the country observed the festival. Complaints of niggardly housekeeping were constantly being made. In the “Roxburghe Collection” is a very doleful ballad entitled “Christmas’ Lamentation for the loss of his acquaintance, showing how he is forced to leave the country and come to London.” Hear how it begins:

Christmas is my name; far have I gone,
Have I gone, have I gone, have I gone,
    Without regard;

Whereas great men by flocks there be flown,
There be flown, there be flown, there be flown,
    To London ward;

Where they in pomp and pleasure do waste
That which Christmas was wonted to feast,

Houses where music was wont for to ring,
Nothing but hats and huwlets do sing,
    Welladay, welladay, welladay
    Where should I stay?

Christmas beef and bread is turned to stones, &c.
    And silken rags;
And lady Money sleeps, and makes moans, &c.
    In misers’ bags.

Houses where pleasure once did abound,
Nought but a dog and a shepherd is found,

Places where Christmas revels did keep,
Is now become habitations for sheep,

Poor Robin’s Almanac harps perpetually on the same theme. Against such curmudgeons was directed the old carol of Dives and Lazarus, which must have been sung at many a rich churl’s door to the gratification of a knot of shivering wretches. I give it from ass old broadside4 in the Bodleian.

As it fell out upon a day
    Rich Dives made a feast,
And he invited all his friends
    And gentry of the best.

Then Lazarus laid him down and down,
    E’en down at Dives’ door;
Some meat, some drink, brother Dives,
    Bestow upon the poor.

Thou art none of my brother, Lazarus,
    That lies begging at the door.
No meat nor drink will I give to thee,
    Nor bestow upon the poor.

Then Lazarus laid him down and down,
    E’en down at Dives’ wall;
Some meat, some drink, brother Dives,
    Or with hunger starve I shall.

Thou art none of my brother, Lazarus,
    That lies begging at my wall;
For neither meat nor drink will I give,
    But with hunger starve you shall.

Then Lazarus laid him down and down
    E’en down at Dives’ gate;
Some meat, some drink, brother Dives,
    For Jesus Christ His sake.

Thou art none of my brother, Lazarus,
    That lies begging at my gate;
No meat nor drink will I give to thee
    For Jesus Christ His sake.

Then Dives sent out his merry men,
    To whip poor Lazarus away,
They had no power to strike one stroke,
    But flung their whips away.

Then Dives sent out his hungry dogs
    To bite him as he lay;
They had no power to bite at all,
But licked his sores away.

As it fell out upon a day,
    Poor Lazarus sickened and died;
There came two angels out of heaven,
    His soul therein to guide.

Rise up, rise tip, brother Lazarus,
    And go along with me,
For you’ve a place prepared in heaven
    Upon an angel’s knee,5

As it fell out upon a day,
    Rich Dives sickened and died;
There came two serpents out of hell,
    His soul therein to guide.

Rise up, rise up, brother Dives,
    And go along with me;
There is prepared a place in hell
    From which thou ne’er can flee.

Then Dives looked up with his eyes,
    And saw poor Lazarus blest
Give a drop of water, brother Lazarus,
    To quench my horning thirst.

O had I as many years to abide,
    As there are blades of grass,
Then there would he an end, but now
    Hell’s pains will never pass.

O was I now but alive again,
    The space of one half hour;
O that I’d made my peace secure,
    Then the devil should have no power!”

Churls of the class of Dives will always exist, but one likes to think that there are fewer of them now than formerly. Truly, there is every need to-day for sympathy and charity towards the poor and the afflicted.

Very pleasant is the obsolete practice of combining devotion and good fellowship. Fancy a modern rhymester hailing the arrival of Christmas after this style I —

“Now that the time is come wherein
    Our Saviour Christ was burn,
The larders full of beef and pork,
    The garners filled with corn,” &c.6

Finding these verses in Poor Robin’s Almanac for 1700, we are charmed by their quaint sincerity. Ah that homely piety and simple-hearted mirth might be revived! These are dull times. Where are the mummers and the maskers? Where the Lord of Misrule and the Twelfth-tide kings and queens? What a poor business is a country-fair to-day Smock-races,7 hot-hasty- pudding contests, and grinning through a horse-collar have been abolished. Merry-go-rounds and shooting- galleries are well-nigh the only attractions. But we must remember that, with many innocent diversions, not a few barbarous sports have been swept away. Cock-fighting still has its supporters in the Black Country, but it is to be hoped that nobody is anxious to revive cock-throwing or goose-riding. In remote districts many good old customs still linger. The wassailers still sing their cheery song, and the Christmas play, with its odd medley of characters, St. George, the Turk, the Doctor, Beelzebub8 (sometimes with the addition of Oliver Cromwell and the Duke of Wellington), still delights bucolic audiences. Hone, writing more than half a century ago, anticipated that the practice of singing Christmas carols would be abolished in the course of a few years. His lugubrious prophecy has happily not been fulfilled. “As I Sat On A Sunny Bank,” “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In,” “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen,” “Remember, O Thou Man,” “The First Nowell The Angel Did Say,” and others, are still sung year after year. But the more fantastic carols seem to be losing ground. “The Cherry Tree Carol,” the finest of all carols, has been shorn of half its beauty by modern prudishness. Every girl and boy should be taught the lovely stanzas beginning, “As Joseph was a-walking” (p. 31). Never were Christ’s praises chanted in sweeter, clearer tunes. At the present day people are too refined (or should we say—stolid?) to appreciate such strange pieces of composition as “Holy Well,” [As It Fell Out One May Morning] “The Moon Shines Bright,” and “The Carnal and the Crane.” In the most characteristic carols there is a pathetic wistful melody, as though the singer were yearning to give utterance to the thoughts that crowd his soul. Sometimes, as in the carol beginning “I Sing Of A Maiden” (p. 4), the accents ring clear and sweet, without a flaw. At other times the language is semi-articulate, woven of cloud-fancies, dim as a half-remembered dream. He must have had true poetic feeling who wrote the following strange carol of The Seven Virgins9: —

All under the leaves, and the leaves of life,
    I met with virgins seven,
And one of them was Mary mild,
    Our Lord’s mother of Heaven.

O what are you seeking, you seven fair maids,
    All under the leaves of life;
Come tell, come tell, what seek you
    All under the leaves of life?’

We’re seeking for no leaves, Thomas,
    But for a friend of thine,
We’re seeking for sweet Jesus Christ
    To be our guide and thine.’

Go down, go down to yonder town
    And sit in the gallery,
And there you’ll see sweet Jesus Christ,
    Nailed to a big yew tree.’

So down they went to yonder town
    As fast as foot could fall,
And many a grievous bitter tear
    From the Virgin’s eye did fall.

O peace, Mother, O peace, Mother,
    Your weeping doth me grieve;
I must suffer this,’ he said,
For Adam and for Eve.’

O Mother, take you John Evangelist
    All for to be your son,
And he will comfort you sometimes
    Mother, as I have done.’

O come thou, John Evangelist,
    Thou’rt welcome unto me,
But more welcome my own dear Son
    Whom I nursed on my knee.’

Then he laid his head on his right shoulder,
    Seeing death it struck him nigh,—
‘The holy Mother he with your soul,
    I die, Mother dear, I die.’

O the rose, the gentle rose,
    And the fennel that grows so green,
God give us grace in every place
    To pray for our king and queen.

Furthermore for our enemies all
    Our prayers they should be strong:
Amen, good Lord; your charity
    Is the ending of my song.”

Sung on the crisp frosty road beneath the flying moon, that pathetic and fantastic strain might well stir the hearers’ hearts with far-off wonder and awe. But for some time past it has been a growing practice to sing carols in churches instead of in the open air. Only the less poetical carols are in use, and the element of picturesqueness is fast vanishing. One of the most popular carols is the piece beginning “Good King Wenceslas Looked Out,” written by the Rev. Dr. Neale. The language is poor and commonplace to the last degree.

Much has been written about the history of Christmas Carols, and I have no intention in this brief preface of minutely traversing the well-trodden ground. In England the practice of carol-singing appears to have first become widely spread in the 15th century. Many of the pieces collected from MSS. by the labour of Ritson, Wright, and Sandys belong to this early date. We are fortunate in possessing an ancient MS. copy of the Carol of St. Stephen (p. 33, Saint Stephen Was A Clerk). Doubtless (in a somewhat altered shape) The Carnal and The Crane, The Holy Well, and The Seven Virgins belong to the 15th century; but no early copies of these pieces, whether in print or MS., are known to exist. The earliest printed collection was issued by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521. Only a fragment of it has descended; and in this fragment Hearne the antiquary found the original version of the famous Boars Head Carol. A later collection, printed by Richard Kele, was issued about 1550. Specimens from this unique volume were printed in “Bibliographical Miscellanies,” 1813, whence I have drawn the pieces beginning, “In Betheleem, That Noble Place” (p. 10), and “Lordes and ladyes all by dene” (p. 12).

Other books of so-called Christmas Carols were licensed for printing in the latter part of the 16th century but the pieces in these collections appear to have been hymns rather than carols.

Early in the next century we find a genuine example of a carol, with music, (“Remember, O Thou Man”) in Ravenscroft’s “Melismata,” 1611. A few years afterwards an attempt to supplant the old carols was made by William Slatyer in “Certame of David’s Psalmes intended for Christmas Carols.” At a somewhat later date a few carols, though not of the best kind, are found among the Roxburghe Ballads. In the second half of the last century T. Bloomer, a Birmingham printer, did good service by printing in broadside form all the traditional carols he could find. Jemmy Catnach, of Great Monmouth Street, Seven Dials, in the second quarter of the present century, was zealous in diffusing the knowledge of Christmas Carols. As the season comes round hawkers still call at villagers’ doors with wretchedly-printed slips ; hut only a few of the old traditional carols continue to circulate.

Alongside of the sacred carols sung in the open air, flourished the jovial carols sung at Christmas feasts. A small black-letter collection of these pieces was published in 1642; another appeared in 1661; a small undated collection belongs probably to the same time; a fourth is dated 1688. These tracts, belonging to the class of books that are most easily thumbed out of existence, are of the rarest possible occurrence. The library of the British Museum does not possess a copy of any of them; but luckily they are all in the Bodleian, bound together in a small duodecimo volume which once belonged to that “facete” (to use the term he applies to Democritus Junior) and ingenious scholar, Antony-à-Wood, the never-to-be-forgotten author of “Athenæ Oxonienses.” In the Long Vacation I spent some delightful hours in making copious extracts from these curious tracts, which few previous collectors appear to have examined. It may he that the reader will not find the same pleasure in these old rustic songs as I found. For in truth I was in the mood to enjoy everything. Returning after long absence to Oxford, I thought the old spires and domes had never looked so beautiful before. The studious hush of the Bodleian was charming after the noise of London streets. Before me lay the MS. catalogue, in a 17th-century hand, of the books which Robert Burton bequeathed to the library he loved so well; and as with reverence I turned the pages, the air seemed filling with the ghosts of grand old Oxford scholars, men who lived before the days of competitive examinations and pretentious sciolism; men who loved learning for its own sake, and whose whole life passed as a summer’s day. Then the walk in the mellow evening-air with an old fellow student to Foxcomb Hill, and the draught of foaming ale in the inn parlour where I had spent so many jovial hours I But I return to Antony-à-Wood’s collection of carols. The reader will perceive that they are genuine specimens of the songs that were sung in farm-houses by shepherds and ploughmen at Christmas feasts in the 17th century. Very touching is the gratitude of the poor fellows for being allowed the run of their teeth:

Of delicates so dainty
I see now here is plenty,
Upon this table ready here prepared;
Then let us now give thanks to those
That all things friendly thus bestows,
Esteeming not this world that is so hard.

For of the same my master
Hath made me here a taster;
The Lord above requite him for the same!
And so to all within this house
I will drink a full carouse,
With leave of my good master and my dame.

And the Lord be praised
My stomach is well cased,
My hones at quiet may go take their rest
Good fortune surely followed me
To bring me thus so luckily
To eat and drink so freely of the best.”

Their stomachs were sharp-set, and we may be sure they played a nimble knife and fork throughout the whole twelve days. Christmas comes but once a year, so they made the best of their time and lustily trolled the nut-brown bowl in honour of St. Stephen and St. John. One of the most interesting pieces is the New Year’s Carol (p. 205), sung by the shepherd, who comes bringing mellow pippins as presents for his master’s children, points10 for the farm-labourers, and pins for the maids. The verses bidding Farewell to Christmas are lugubrious indeed; but the honest fellows doubtless found consolation in the thought that they would feast again next year.

Those who spent their Christmas at their own fireside had also carols, but of a soberer sort. The following verses, which evidently cannot boast of a high antiquity, I heard in Berkshire:

When I’m at school my father
    Is working on the farm,
The harvest he must gather
    To keep us all from harm.

My brother is at sea,
    My sister’s gone from home,
She must in service be
    Till merry Christmas come.

We all shall meet together
    On merry Christmas Eve;
We reck not wind or weather
    While we our Christmas keep.

All round the rodded (?) earth
    Each one might chance to say,
Since last we met in mirth
Twas merry Christmas Day.”

Rather a doleful ditty that; no mention of goose or mince pies. At the same time I took down the following slight but pretty rhymes

Sing we all merrily,
    Christmas is here,
The day that we love best
    Of days in the year.

Bring forth the holly,
    The box and the bay,
Deck out our cottage
    For glad Christmas Day.

Sing we all merrily,
    Draw round the fire,
Sister and brother,
    Grandson and sire.”

It would be easy to write a long dissertation about Christmas ceremonies, for the materials are all to our hand. But as I have no desire to make a parade of cheap learning, I refer the reader to that elaborate and easy accessible work, Brand’s “Popular Antiquities.” For one who has neither the learning of Brand nor the light touch of Leigh Hunt, it would be impertinent to write at length on so trite a theme. The present volume lays little claim to research. It has been put together in idle moments, and is intended rather for the general reader than for scholars. The orthography of the older pieces has been modernised, but I have endeavoured in all cases to give, as far as possible, a correct text. It may perhaps be thought that a few more old carols should have been included in the First Part. I omitted without hesitation such pieces as “When Jesus Christ Was Twelve Years Old” (popular though it is), “The Lord At First Had Adam Made,” “When Caesar Augustus Had Rais'd A Taxation,” “When Old Father Jacob Was Ready To Die,” &c. ; but I parted reluctantly from “Blessed Be That Maid Mary,” “Mary Mother, Meek And Mild,” “Marvel Not, Joseph, On Mary Mild,” and others.

Some readers may be vexed at finding in the Second Part so well-known a poem as Milton’s “Ode on the Nativity.” I have no particular affection for the poem as a whole, though I greatly admire certain stanzas, and am not blind to the marvellous metrical skill displayed throughout. With the sacred text of Milton I dared not tamper. I felt that I must print the Ode in its integrity or not at all; and I chose the first course. In regard to Crashaw, whose transcendent merits I should be the last to dispute, I had less hesitation. His Hymn of the Nativity I give entire, hut of the Hymn for the Epiphany I quote only the opening lines, for the latter part abounds with the most violent conceits. At the end of the volume I have added a few notes. There is a striking poem by Frederick Tennyson, “The Holy Tide,” which I should like to have included; but it is far too long. With two stanzas from it I take leave of the reader: —

The days are sad, it is the Holytide:
    The Wintermorn is short, the Night is long;
So let the lifeless Hours be glorified
    With deathless thoughts, and echoed in sweet song:
And through the sunset of this purple cup
    They will resume the roses of their prime,
And the old Dead will hear us and wake up,
    Pass with dim smiles and make our hearts sublime

The days are sad, it is the Holytide;
    Be dusky mistletoes and hollies strown,
Sharp as the spear that pierced his sacred side,
    Red as the drops upon his thorny crown;
No haggard Passion and no lawless Mirth
    Fright off the sombre Muse,—tell sweet old tales,
Sing songs as we sit bending o’er the hearth,
    Till the lamp flickers, and the memory fails.”

Notes from Bullen (except as noted)

1. Massinger’s “City Madam,” ii I. (Credat Judæus!) Return

2 Memoirs of Sir John Reresby (Camden Society), p. 310. Return

3 Ibid., pp. 266—7. Return

4. Printed in the last century by T. Bloomer, 53 Edgbaston Street, Birmingham. Return

5. Another copy reads
    “In angels’ company.” Return

6. Editor's Note: The full carol is reproduced in both Wright (1841) and Husk (1868). See: Now That The Time Is Come. Return

7. So called because the successful girl was presented with a holland smock. Return

8. “Here come I, Beelzebub
Under my arm I carry a club,
Under my chin I carry a pan,
Don’t I look a nice young man?”

9. I have not been able to see an old copy of this piece, which I have taken from an excellent collection of Christmas Carols edited a few years ago by “Joshua Sylvestre.” Return

10. Tagged laces that held up the breeches. Return

Editor's Note:

Referred to in Bullen's text above, here is Robert Herrick's poem on the sport of "Stool-Ball" from Hesperides:

At Stool-ball, Lucia, let us play,
For Sugar-cakes and Wine;
Or for a Tansie let us pay,
The losse or thine, or mine.
2  If thou, my Deere, a winner be
At trundling of the Ball,
The wager thou shalt have, and me,
And my misfortunes all.
3  But if (my Sweetest) I shall get,
Then I desire but this;
That likewise I may pay the Bet,
And have for all a kisse.

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