The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

its History, Festivities and Carols

William Sandys, F. S. A.
London: John Russell Smith, 1852

Chapter 11 - Decorating with Evergreens

Several of the circumstances referred to in the carols, may also be found in the early mysteries, and are probably handed down from them, or from some legend common to both. Some, indeed, may have been derived from the Apocryphal New Testament, as from the birth of Mary, the Protevangelion, and the infancy. The tradition, for instance, of Joseph being an old man, is derived from both sources; in the Coventry Mysteries he complains of his age in many passages.

“...I am so agyd and so olde,
Yt both my leggys gyn to folde,
I am ny almost lame.”

In the cherry-tree carol [see: The Cherry Tree Carol - Notes], and in the Dutch date-tree carol, he is described as an old man, and weary. This cherry-tree carol, of which there are two or three varieties, one of which is printed in the following collection, appears to have been of the fifteenth century, if not older; as, in Hoffman’s specimens of Dutch carols of that age, there is one very similar, merely substituting a date for a cherry tree, the date perhaps having been considered more oriental, The following is the translation given in ‘Notes and Queries.’

  Joseph he led the ass,
  The bridle held he;
  What found they by the way,
  But a date tree ?
Oh! ass’s foal, thou must stand still,
To gather dates it is our will,
  So weary are we.
The date tree bowed to the earth,
  To Mary’s knee;
Mary would fill her lap
  From the data tree.
Joseph was an old man,
  And wearied was he.
Mary, let the date tree bide,
We have yet forty miles to ride,
  And late it will be.
Let us pray tins Blessed Child
  Grant us rnercie.”1

The tradition is also introduced in the early mysteries, and the following is the manner in which it is treated in the fifteenth of the Coventry plays, that may serve as a specimen of these performances, somewhat quaint and rude to our modern ears; and it would puzzle a practised Shakesperian reader, even a well-skilled relation of my own in this art, to give one of these ancient dramas with any effect.—Mary says,

A my swete husbond, wolde ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon you hylle ?

Joseph. Forsoothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre,
In tyme of yer ye myght fede yow yon yo fylle.

Maria. Turne ageyn, husbond, and beholde yon tie,
How yt it bloniyglit now so swetly.

Joseph. Cum on, Mary, yt we worn at you cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd I telle yow tytlily.

Maria. Now, my spouse, I pray yaw to be hold
How ye cheryes growyn upon yon tre,
For to have yr of ryght fayis I wold,
And it plesyd yow to labor so mccli for me.

Joseph. Yor desyr to ftdfylle I shall assay sekyrly,
Ow to plucke yow of these cherries it is a werk wylde,
For ye tre is so hyg’ it wol not be lyghtly,
Yr for lete hy pluk yow eheryes begatt yaw wt childe.

Maria. Now, good Lord, I pray the, graunt me yis boun,
To have of yesc diaries, and it be yor wylle,
Now I thank it God, yis tre bowyth to me down,
I may now gadery anowe and etyn my fylle.

Joseph. Ow, I know weyl I have offeudyd. my God i trinyte,
Spekyn to my spowse these unkynde wordys.
For now I beleve wel it may non other be,
But yt my spowse heryght ye kyngys son of blys,
He help us now at ure nede!”

In the French mystery, or Pastoral, as it is called, of the Naissance, on the first appearance of Joseph and Mary, in their humble condition, the host resists all the entreaties of his wife to let them in—she, with the compassion of a woman (found, as Mango Park relates, even in the uncivilised interior of Africa) being moved with the apparent helpless condition of the Virgin—the surly host, however, says,

“Fermez, fermez la porte,
Nous ne logerons point des gens do cette sorte.”

Thus repulsed, they then take shelter in the stable.

The legend of the roasted cock coming to life, in proof of our Saviour’s birth, which is mentioned in the carol of the ‘Carnal and the Crane,’ may also be found in an old carol for St. Stephen’s Day, of the time of Henry the Sixth; but in this, instead of crowing three times, as in the more modern carol, the bird, which in the older version is called a capon, crows, “Christus natus est.” [See: Saint Stephen Was A Clerk] The legend of the husbandman, in the same carol, whose seed sprang up before Herod and his train arrived, has been already referred to, as forming part of one of the old mysteries.

The curious fancy, in the carol of ‘I Saw Three Ships,’ is old; one of the ancient Dutch carols given by Hoffman, beginning

“There comes a vessel laden,
And on its highest gunwale,
Mary holds the rudder,
The angel steers it on.”

And in an after verse,

"In one unbroken course
There comes that ship to land,
It brings to us rich gifts,
Forgiveness is sent to us."

Ritson also mentions the following lines, as sung at Christmas time, about the middle of the sixteenth century.

"There comes a ship far sailing then,
Saint Michel was the stieres-man;
Saint John sate in the horn.
Our Lord harped, our Lady sang,
And all the bells of heaven they rang,
On Christ’s Sonday at morn."2

A modern broadside carol, called ‘The Sunny Bank,’ [As I Sat On A Sunny Bank] gives these lines thus.

“O he did whistle, and she did sing,
And all the bells on earth did ring,
For joy that our Saviour he was born
On Christmas Day in the morning.”

Hone, in his Mysteries, mentions a carol printed by J. Bradford, Little Britain, 1701, having a large woodcut, representing the stable at Bethlehem; our Saviour in the crib, watched by the Virgin and Joseph; shepherds kneeling, and angels attending; a man playing on the bagpipes; a woman with a basket of fruit on her head; a sheep bleating, and an ox lowing on the ground; a raven croaking, and a crow cawing on the hay-rack; a cock crowing above them; and angels singing in the sky. The animals and birds have labels, which are thus explained. The cock croweth, Christus natus est, Christ is born. The raven asked, Quando? When? The cow replied, Hac nocte, this night. The ox cryeth out, Ubi? Ubi? Where? where? The sheep bloated out, Bethehem, Bethlehem. Voice from heaven sounded, Gloria in Excelsis, Glory be on high. There is an old French mystery of the Nativity, referred to in “Noel Borguignon de Gui Barzai,” where four animals are introduced, much in the same manner; the ox and ass of the manger, the cock of the passion, and the lamb of St. John the Baptist. The cock exclaims, with a piercing voice, Christus natus est. The ox, with a lengthened bellowing, demands Ubi? pronouncing it oubi. The lamb answers Bethleem, lengthening the first syllable; and the ass concludes, with hinhamus, hinhamus, signifying eamus.

Several carols refer to the crucifixion and resurrection, and, as formerly observed, are more adapted to Easter than Christmas; but there are also regular Christmas carols, which carry our Saviour’s history down to the time of his death. It may be readily supposed, that the cross itself has a legend attached to it, and its origin indeed dates from the death of Adam. When he was at the point of death, he directed his son Seth to apply to the angel of Paradise, for some of the oil of mercy, and obtained from him three kernels from an apple of the tree of life, which he was instructed to plant after Adam’s death; one in his mouth, and one in each nostril. From the tree which sprang from these kernels, the rod of Moses, with which he worked his miracles, was taken, and also the wood with which he cured the bitter water, and the pole whereon the brazen serpent was raised. At the time of building Solomon’s temple, the tree was cut down for use, but it was in every case found too long or too short, or with some other defect, and was thrown aside as unserviceable for the temple, and applied as a foot-bridge; but the Queen of Sheba, during her visit to King Solomon, refused to pass over it, stating it would prove the ruin of the Jews. It was then used as a seat, but the Sybil would not sit on it, predicting that the Redeemer would die triumphantly on it, for the salvation of mankind. It afterwards remained in the pool of Bethesda until the time of the crucifixon, when some difficulty arising in procuring proper wood for the cross, some of the Jews thought of this tree, which they found perfectly adapted for the purpose.

One of the versions of the legend states, that a smith being applied to, to make three nails to fasten our Saviour to the cross, he refused to do so, and feigned sickness, upon which his wife came forward and made them. After the crucifixion, the cross, with its nails, became buried in rubbish, and was lost sight of, until Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, went to Jerusalem, in 326, and after diligent search found it, together with the crosses of the two thieves, Titus (the penitent) and Dumachus, the former of whom had prevented the latter from robbing Joseph and Mary, on their flight to Egypt, and the child Jesus had then foretold that they would be crucified with Him, thirty years afterwards, and that Titus should go to Paradise.

Three crosses having been found by Helena, and the inscription having been detached, a difficulty arose how to identify the true one; but this was removed by placing them by the side of a lady who was dangerously ill, and she was immediately restored to health on the application of the real cross. She gave the nails and part of the cross to her son, and founded a church at Rome, where she placed the remainder, with the inscription. Constantine, it is said, placed one of the nails on the bridle of his war-horse, and one on his sword, and the third was cast into a dangerous gulf of the sea, to appease a storm.

According to Fabian, Athelstan had in his possession one of the nails, with part of the cross; and another part with a nail; and the crown of thorns, were said to have been at Notre Dame, in Paris; and portions of it claimed to be preserved in other churches.3

There is a curious story on the subject, related in Harl. MS. 2252 (temp. Hen. 8), entitled, “A grete myracle of a knyghte, callyde Syr Roger Wallysborow.” Being in the Holy Land, he wished to bring off privily a piece of the cross, and praying to that effect, his thigh opened miraculously, and received it. He then returned to Cornwall, his native country, having in the course of his voyage, by virtue of the fragment of the cross, appeased the elements, and prevented shipwreck. On his arrival, his thigh opened to liberate the precious relic, of which he gave part to the parish church where this happened, hence called Cross parish, and the remainder to St. Buryan, where his lands were.

The slaughter of the Innocents is referred to in several carols, and there are some written expressly for Innocents’ Day [See: The Hymns Of The Holy Innocents]; the day of the week on which it falls being considered unlucky throughout the year by many. Brand mentions a custom in Roman Catholic countries of running through all the rooms of a house, making a pretended search in and under the beds, in commemoration of Herod’s search for the children; and there is a tradition that his own son was killed among them, which made Augustus say, that it was better to be Herod’s hog than his son, referring to his being a Jew, and therefore forbidden to kill swine, playing also on the Greek words, υν (un) a hog, and υίον (uion) a son.4 Some carols, or Christmas songs, refer to the bringing in of the boar’s head [See: The Boar's Head Carols]; and in the old carol of St. Stephen’s Day, before mentioned, St. Stephen, who is stated to be in king Herod’s service, is, somewhat inconsistently with such service, introduced as bringing in a boar’s head [See, generally: Hymns to St Stephen].

“Stevyn out of kechon cam wt boris hed on honde,
He saw a sterr was fayr and bryzt our bedlem ston
He kyst a down the bors hod and went into the halle,
I forsak the kyng herowds and thi werks ale,
I forsak the kyng herowds and thi werks ale,
Ther is a chyd in bedlem born is betr than we alle.”

It is difficult to say whether the boar’s head was first introduced at Christmas as a kind of anti-judaical test, because the Jews would not eat it — something like pork was said to be eaten at Easter, together with tansy pudding (a corruption from athanasia); — but as the boar’s head seems to have been a favourite at all great feasts, at least, from the time of that greatest of boars, Scrymer, it is probable that it thus became a “chief service” at the greatest of feasts.

There are several ancient MS. carols in the British Museum, particularly in Sloane MS. 2593 and Harl. MS. 5396, Additional MSS. 5465 and 5665 and Cotton MS. Vespasian A, xxv, of which several, and probably the best, have been printed in Christmas carols, edited by Mr. Wright, for the Percy Society, in 1841 [See: Specimens of Old Christmas Carols Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books], and in the collection of Christmas carols, by the author of the present work, in 1833 [See: William Sandys: Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern]. There is also a curious collection of songs and carols, supposed to have been a minstrel’s book of the fifteenth century, edited, in 1847, for the Percy Society, by Mr. Wright [See: Songs and Carols - Thomas Wright], whose ability in all matters connected with the history, customs, and antiquities of our country, are so well known; old carols may also be found in the libraries of the Universities. The oldest printed collection of carols was by Wynkyn de Worde, in 1521, which contains one on bringing in the boar’s head. Another rare collection was printed by Richard Kele, in the Poultry, between 1546 and 1552.

In 1562, John Tysdale had a license for printing ‘Certayne goodly carowles to be songe to the glory of God;’ and, in the same year, Rowlande Hall had one for ‘Crestenmas carroles auctorysshed by my lorde of London.’ In 1563, John Day printed some carols of Thomas Becon; and, in 1569, Richard Jonnes and James Robertes, each printed a collection; the last being by Christopher Payne. About the same time Tusser wrote a carol, as well as other poetry, illustrative of Christmas-tide. In 1579, J. Alder had a license for ‘a Godly Hymn or Carol for Christmas,’ and in 1580, for ‘Godly Carols, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.’ In ‘Songs of Sundry natures,’ by William Byrd, 1589, there is a Christmas carol which has been printed by Mr. J. Payne Collier, the distinguished editor of Shakespeare, in Lyrical Poems, for the Percy Society. In 1597 was published at Edinburgh, ‘Ane Compendioos Booke of Godly and Spirituall Songs,’ which contains some carols; these with the other songs were adapted to popular tunes, the intention being to supersede the use of profaner ballads; it was reprinted in 1801. In ‘Ancient Scottish Poems,’ Dunbar has inserted one from the Bannatyne MS. In 1630, ‘Certame of David’s Psalmes, intended for Christmas carolls, fitted to the most common but solempne tunes, everywhere familiarly used, by William Slatyr,’ was printed by Robert Young, and a similar work in 1642. There is one also at the end of Aylett’s ‘Eclogues and Elegies.’ In Herrick’s ‘Noble Numbers,’ 1640, there are five carols, or songs in the nature of carols, some of which were set to music by Henry Lawes, and were sung before the court, and there are many poems connected with Christmas customs in his other works. [See: Christmas Customs - Robert Herrick]

In 1661 was published a collection called ‘New Carolls for this Merry Time of Christmas, to sundry pleasant Tunes, with new Additions, never before printed, to be sung to delight the hearers; printed by H. B., for Andrew Kemb.’ In the tit1e-page was a print of the Wise Men discovering the Star. There were likewise ‘Christmas carols, fit also to be sung at Easter,’ and ‘New Christmas Carols,’ in 1688. Some of these collections were encouraged by the puritans, to drive away those of a lighter description; and, in 1684, ‘A Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs,’ of this nature, was printed at Ghent, for the purpose of superseding the popular ballad, and may be assumed to have contained serious carols for the same purpose.

We must not omit to mention Milton’s ‘Ode and Hymn on the Nativity.’

“It was the winter wild,
While the heaven-born child,
    All meanly wrapt, in the rude manger lies;”

[See: On The Morning of Christ's Nativity]

and single hymns or carols may be found in other writers, to name which would, only be to swell this, already I fear, too tiresome list. Lewis’s ‘Presbyterian Eloquence,’ 1720, contains a catalogue of Presbyterian books, in which is the following: ‘A Cabinet of Choice Jewels; or, the Christian’s Joy and Gladness: set forth in sundry pleasant new Christmas carols, viz, a carol for Christmas Day, to the tune of Over Hills and High Mountains; for Christmas Day, at night, to the tune of My Life and my Death; for St. Stephen’s Day, to the tune of O, cruel bloody Tale; for New Year’s Day, to the tune of Caper and Firk it; for Twelfth Day, to the tune of O Mother Roger.’ Several of Poor Robin’s Almanacs contain carols or Christmas poems.

In the broadside and other lists of chap books, ballads, &c. published about 150 years ago, the names of several well known carols occur, as, ‘When Jesus Christ Was Twelve Years Old,’ ‘Joseph an aged man truly,’ ‘Jury came to Jerusalem,’ ‘Angel Gabriel,’ ‘Christus natus est,’ &c. There is also a small collection printed, about the same time, by William Thackery, at the Angel, in Duck Lane. The carol, ‘Christians Awake Salute The Happy Morn,’ is said to have been written by Mr. Greatorex, the father of the late organist, about a century since, and it is stated that Mr. Webbe, the composer, set one. The late Mr. Hone, in his work on Mysteries, 1823,—where, as well as in his ‘The Every Day Book,’ [2 volumes; 1825, 1827] ‘Year Book,’ [1832] and ‘Table Book,’ much interesting information may be found relating to Christmas customs — gives a list of eighty-nine recent carols [See: Christmas Carols now annually Printed], and mentions one by Francis Hoffman, in 1729, with the curious title of "A Christmas Carol on Pekoe Tea; or, a Sacred Carol, which like tea that is perfectly good and fine, will be most useful and grateful all the year round, from Christmas to Christmas, for ever; humbly addressed to Queen Caroline, and the princess Carolina, and all the Royal Family." Perhaps, if this could be seen, it might turn out to be a tea-dealer’s puff for even now with all our worldly experience, we are occasionally taken in to read a puff from its innocent and unassuming appearance. There have been frequent publications of carols, from time to time, for use, according to the demand, partly in broadsides and partly in the nature of chap publications, and in a popular form down to the present time, which need not, and indeed cannot, be enumerated; and the account given of the old collected publications is not presumed to be perfect.

In 1822 the late Mr. Davies Gilbert published twelve favourite western carols, with the tunes, and in 1823 a second edition, containing twenty, with a few old ballads, &c. In 1833, the author of the present work published a collection of eighty carols, ancient and modern, with seventeen tunes; and a copy of the Christmas play of St. George and the Dragon, with an introduction relating to Christmas customs, the essential part of which has been embodied in these pages [See: William Sandys - Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern and Gilbert and Sandys' Christmas Carols]. Mr. Parker, in 1838, printed sixteen original carols, of a devout nature, with tunes adapted; and Mr. Chappell introduced some carols in his collection of National English Airs.

In 1847 Mr. Sharpe published eleven Christmas carols, with good illustrations; and in the same year, Dr. Rimbault, a great musical antiquary, edited, in a tasteful form, five old carols, with six tunes. In 1841, as before mentioned, Mr. Wright edited a collection of forty-nine old Christmas carols, for the Percy Society [See: Specimens of Old Christmas Carols Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books]; and in 1847, songs and carols for the same Society; they are seventy-six in number, of which about half may be considered carols [See: Songs and Carols]; there was an illustrated collection by Mr. Cundell, in 1846, and there are probably others which have not come to my knowledge.

Mr. Hervey, in 1836, published the ‘Book of Christmas,’ containing a good deal of information in a pleasing style, with illustrations; and two years since a very elegant work was edited by Mr. H. Vizetelly, called ‘Christmas with the Poets,’ being a selection of poetical pieces, including some carols from the thirteenth century to the present time, forming an interesting collection, embellished with fine woodcuts.

Besides the several broadside carols, and printed collections in town and country, before referred to, theme have been various collections of Welsh carols; several are among the Myvyrian MSS., belonging to the Cymmrodorion: No. 14, written about the year 1640, contains thirty-two; and No. 15, of about the same date, has two. The Lffyr Carolan, or ‘Book of Carols,’ fourth edition, Shrewsbury, 1740, comprises sixty-six carols for Christmas, and five summer carols; and Blodeugerdd Cymric, or the ‘Anthology of Wales,’ Shrewsbury, 1779, contains forty-eight Christmas carols, nine summer carols, three May carols, one winter carol, one nightingale carol, and a carol to Cupid, which might interest my readers, if I could translate it.

The carols printed in the following pages [e.g., Sandys - Christmas-tide], are taken from a collection of several hundred English, including the broadside publications for the last thirty years; and French, including several editions in the patois. Some of the English, according to reputation, have been known in Cornwall for nearly three hundred years past, and these, with others, have been obtained from old manuscript copies now in my possession, or oral tradition from the singers themselves, and the tunes have been procured in the same way, though I am indebted to my friend, Mr. Wm. Chappell, for the harmonies.

I have selected, out of several versions of the western Christmas play of ‘St. George and the Dragon,’ that which seemed best adapted for the purpose. Specimens have been printed in Hone’s ‘Every Day Book,’ the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine,’ and the ‘Popular Rhymes’ of Mr. Halliwell, who has applied his store of reading to the illustration of our poetical literature. There is a version also in that dialect with some description, in Jan Trenoodle’s ‘Specimens of Cornish Provincial Dialect,’ a small work for which I am answerable, and therefore, perhaps, ought not to refer to it, but I know no other of the sort.

The play of ‘Alexander and the King of Egypt,’5 is a representation of the northern Christmas play, and is taken from a rare printed copy in my possession. it consists of six pages, with very common paper and type, the title-page being, ‘Alexander and the King of Egypt. A mock play, as it is acted by the mummers every Christmas. Newcastle: Printed in the year 1788.’ It is given here verbatim, with two or three slight omissions, necessary for modern ears. The great similarity between the northern and western plays will immediately be seen, showing the common origin; but these performances must be seen to be properly appreciated.

The mummers, in several parts of the country where they do not go to the extent of acting the old Christmas play, are generally dressed somewhat in the manner described for ‘St. George and the Dragon,’ one of the party being the clown or buffoon of the set; and they have some doggrel lines, of which a few show symptoms of the same antiquity as the plays; for rhymes, that appear to have been the ad libitum production of some modern rustic wit, will be introduced, with “A room! a room! a gallant room!” or some such line, and the characters are then introduced in the style of the plays, and this style, as before referred to, is as old as the Mysteries; take, for example, a specimen from the sixth of the Chester Plays, where the Nuntius says,—

“Make rombe, lordinges, and geve us waie,
And lette Octavian come and plaie;
And Syble the Sage, that well fayer maye,
To tell you of propheseye.”

Two or three specimens of these mummers’ songs are given by Mr. Dixon, in his ‘Collection of Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England,’ edited for the Percy Society in 1846. These mummings, as well as the plays and carol singings, end in an appeal to the box, and right enough too; for, do not we all, when we have given our services for any purpose, in some shape or other, whether the clergyman for his tithes, the lawyer and physician for their fees, the soldier for his pay, or the statesman for his salary?

In the selection of Carols, I have tried to vary them in age, style, and subject, as far as the materials would permit, without making it too long; and trust that I may, throughout this work, have succeeded in my endeavour to gratify, and not to satiate my readers. I have to express my thanks to Mr. James Stephanoff, for the interest he has taken in the subjects entrusted to his pencil, and the skill and spirit with which he has treated them. The design for the binding has been given by my brother, Mr. Sampson Sandys; and from the well-known zeal and ability of the publisher and printer, I am placed in this awkward predicament, that any failure must rest with myself; and I am fully aware that it can be no excuse, that the work was undertaken as a relief, from the pressure of repeated domestic losses of the severest nature: but I can unaffectedly say, “If I have done well, and as is fitting the story, it is that which I desired; but, if slenderly and meanly, it is that which I could attain unto.”

Notes from Sandys:

1. Notes and Queries, v, 7, communication by Mr. Thoms. Return

2. Introduction to Scotch songs, i, 104. Return

3. See French mystery of fifteenth century, La Nativit, edited by Jubinal, ii, 19, Cornish play of Creation of the World, and poem of Mount Calvary, for further particulars. Return

4. Horne's introduction to the Scriptures, i, 629. Return

5. 2 Maccabees, 15, 38. Return

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