The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Little Book
Christmas Carols
The Ancient Melodies To Which They Are Sung
Including The
Celebrated Boar's Head Song,
Annual Sung On Christmas-day at Queen's College, Oxford.

Collected and Edited By

Edward F. Rimbault, LL.D., F.S.A.

Cramer, Beale & Co., 201, Regent Street,
And 67, Conduit Street.

[No Date]



The practice of Carol singing is of very great antiquity, and may be traced back to the time of the early Christians. The custom is referred to both by St. Paul and St. James; and Pliny the Younger, in his letter to Trajan respecting the Christians, A.D. 107, says, “They were wont to meet together on a stated day, before it was light, and sing among themselves alternately a hymn to Christ as to God.”

According to Durant, the bishops, in the earlier ages of the Church, were accustomed on Christmas-day to sing hymns among their clergy, from whence may be derived our Christmas hymns or carols. Bishop Taylor observes, however, that the 'Gloria in Excelsis,' the well-known hymn sung by the angels to the shepherds at our Lord's Nativity, was the earliest Christmas carol.

The term Carol appears originally to have signified songs intermingled with dancing, or a sort of divertisement; and it is used in that sense in 'Le Roman de la Rose,' and by Chaucer and other old writers. It was afterwards applied to festive songs, and as these became most prevalent during Christmas, it has for a long time past designated (though not exclusively) those sung during that feast; but these should in strictness be distinguished from Christmas hymns, which are of a more solemn nature, although they are now generally confounded together under the name of carols.

The custom of singing carols became general in the fifteenth century; and in some of the early ones scraps of Latin will be found introduced, adopted probably from the Christmas hymns, for which these songs were intended as a substitute. So popular did they become, that Wynkyn de Worde, one of the earliest printers, was induced to print a collection of them in the year 1521, containing, amongst others, the celebrated 'Boar's Head Carol,' anciently sung upon the introduction of that disk on Christmas-day. In the instructions given for the regulation of the household of Henry the Seventh, the ceremonies to be observed on the several feast-days, during the Christmas are set forth; even describing the particular robes and dress to be worn by the king on each of them. On Twelfth-day he is to go crowned, and wear his robes royal; and on Twelfth-night is the following direction: —

"Item, The chappell to stand on the one side of the hall, and when the steward cometh in at the hall-dore with the wassell, he must crie three tymes Wassell, wassell, wassell; and then the chappell to answer with a good songe; and in likewise if it bee in the great chamber."

This "good songe," above referred to, was no doubt a carol; and in the book of expenses of Elizabeth, queen of Henry the Seventh, in the eighteenth year of his reign, we may see the value of one in those days, as William Cornshe, who appears to have been a favourite poet and composer at court, then received 13s. 4d. in reward "for setting a carrall upon Christmas-day." In the British Museum, additional MSS., Nos. 5465 and 5665, being collections of ancient songs in the time off Henry VII. and VIII., are some carols and pious songs, with the music in three and four parts. Among the composers are Edmund Turges, Gilbert Banaster, and the before-named William Cornyshe; and perhaps the 13s 4d. carol may be in the collection.

The price of a collection of carols in the sixteenth century was equally moderate with the reward given for setting one, for in the churchwarden's accounts of St. Mary-at-Hill, London, A.D. 1537, is an entry, "To Sir Mark, for Carolls for Christmas, and for 5 square Books, iiis. iiiid." In the regulations of the Duke of Northumberland's household in 1512, it appears that the children of the chapel were allowed an extraordinary compensation of 6s. 8d. for singing 'Gloria in Excelsis' upon "Christmas-day in the morning." Carols continued much in vogue throughout this century. Tusser mentions one to be sung to the tune of King Solomon; and it would have been very desirable if some of the genuine and popular carol-tunes of that age had been preserved, which may, however, be the case in the following collection, although difficult of proof.

In Shakespeare's time, carols were sung at night during Christmas about the streets, and made a pretext for collecting money. The Reformation also having abolished Latin hymns in the established church, Christmas carols came into general use in the country churches.

"Christmas carols at this time," remarks Mr. Sandys, the author of an elegant collection published in 1833, "were probably divided into two sorts: one of a more Scriptural or serious nature, sung in churches, and through the streets, and from house to house, ushering in the Christmas morning, and sung afterwards, morning and evening, until Twelfth-day; the other of a more convivial nature, and adapted to the season of feasting and carousing. The convivial, or "jolie carols," as Tusser calls them, were sung by the company, or by the itinerant minstrels that attended the feasts for the purpose, during the daily revelry, as the houses of the wealthy throughout the Christmas. Some of them were called Wassel Songs, and may be traced back to the Anglo-Normans, who were very prone to conviviality, and encouraged everything that was likely to aid it."

Bishop Andrewes, in his thirteenth sermon 'Of the Nativitie,' preached on Luke ii. 14, "on the 25th of December, 1619, being Christmas-day," celebrates the day as "glorious in all places, as well at home with Carolls, as in the Church with Anthemes." And Thomas Warmstrey, D.D., the author of a very rare tract entitled 'The Vindication of the Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ' in 1648, thus judiciously delivers his sentiments concerning the practice under consideration: "Christmas Kariles, if they be such as are fit for the time, and of holy and sober composures, and used with Christian sobriety and piety, they are not unlawful, and may be profitable, if they be sung with grace in the heart."

The practice of carols-singing continued with unabated zeal till the end of the last century, since which it has declined, and many old customs have been gradually become obsolete.

In the northern counties, and in some of the midland, carol-singing is still preserved. In the metropolis a solitary itinerant may be occasionally heard in the streets, croaking our "God rest you, merry gentlemen," or some other old carol, to an ancient and simple tune.


Grosvenor Cottage, Park Village East.


Dr. Rimbault was the editor of a second collection, Christmas Carols, for the Chappell and Company. The following is a review of that collection from The Musical World, Dec. 11, 1869, p. 851:

In Chappell's Christmas Carols (Chappell & Co.) the editor, Dr. Rimbault, has collected thirty-three examples, many of them traditional, and "gathered from the lips of rustic singers." We can recommend the book, though for a reason entirely different from that put forth in Dr. Rimbault's preface. The editor says, "Notwithstanding the occasional ruggedness of the verse and sometimes primitive ideas, I preferred the homeliness of the old carol-poetry to modern imitations," and he leaves us in no doubt of his wish to have the "old carol-poetry" revived. Here is a specimen of it: --

"As it fell out one May morning,
    And upon one bright holiday,
Sweet Jesus asked of his dear Mother,
    If he might go to play.

"To play, to play, sweet Jesus shall go,
    And to play pray get you gone,
And let me hear of no complaint
    At night when you come home."

Dr. Rimbault must excuse us for saying that his taste in Christmas poetry is on or rather below the level of the nursery. There are few modern hymns in the book, the presence of which is due to "the desire of several kind friends." But the value of Dr. Rimbault's collection lies, after all, in the ancient ditties, which, if of no practical use, are interesting for their antiquity.

I have not yet been able to review a copy of this volume.

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