The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmas Carols in 'The Wellingtonian'

An article from The Wellingtonian, Vol. II, No. 16, December 1872, p. 419 ff

Published by George Bishop, Wellington College.

Mene incepto desistere victum.

See: Notes on the Twelve Days of Christmas

Note: the scan of the original was just degraded enough that some words were difficult to make out, and therefore may be in error. Your patience and understanding are appreciated.


Many an old custom is fast disappearing before the advancing stream of modern civilization. The tastes, the amusements, the mode of enjoying a holiday, are all changing, and that most rapidly. Quaint ceremonies and old celebrations have gone, never to return. Others survive in a modified though scarcely recognizable form. For instance, when I was a child a large bough of oak was during the night fastened to the door-post of every house in commemoration of the happy restoration of our Sovereign Lord King Charles II. And at Shrovetide the boys of the town threw stones at the front door as part of the ancient ceremony of "beating the bounds." And on every Christmas Eve the school-children came round and sang Christmas Carols. My mother always provided her children with a goodly store of pence on that evening, with which it was our delight to reward the merry little singers.

I am speaking of what, alas! was the case nearly thirty years ago [ca. 1840]. The little country town in which I lived is strangely altered since then. A railway has connected it with the main arteries of communication from the metropolis to the West. Steam-engines and power-looms surround what was once as dead-alive a town as Wokingham. A purely agricultural district has become a manufacturing neighbourhood. Never a bough now-a-days adorns the front door on the bright morning of the twenty-ninth of May, The magistrates have for ever stopped by heavy fines the jovial Shrovetide licence of "heaving" stones at the gentlefolks' doors. And all that now remains of the once universal carol singing on Christmas Eve is a dreary performance of very indifferent music by the fife and drum band of the Volunteer Rifle Corps!

These are vain laments; but perhaps in view of the approaching season it may amuse the readers of the Wellingtonian to hear what quaint songs their forefathers sung at Christmas-tide.

The derivation of the word "carol" is a little doubtful. Some have taken it to be deduced from choreola, the diminutive of chorus. Others would write it kyriole, as though it had been a corruption of the-phrase kyrie eleison. But I think there can be little question that the word came to us from the French. Carole (in Breton korbll) is properly a round dance ; plainly derived from the Latin word corolla. And just as the word ballad (in French balade) comes from the Italian ballare, to dance; so a chanson de carole was a song accompanying a dance, though the word was afterwards limited to the song itself. This use of the word is common enough in our early English authors. For instance, Chaucer, in his Romaunte of the Rose, says (line 760):—

Tho mightist thou karollis sene,
And folké daunce and merie bon,
And made many a faire tourning
Upon the great grasse springing.

A carol, then, as is plain from its etymology, differs widely from a hymn. It was evidently intended to be a poem recited to music of a kind of dance measure, and was not intended originally to be a hymn used in sacred worship. The modern word carol is gradually acquiring the latter meaning only; but the earlier use of the word should be carefully borne in mind, or we shall be at a loss to account for the grotesque quaintness of some of the older carols.

We read in "Warton's English Poetry," that "in the year 1521 Wynkyn de Worde printed a set of Christmas Carols; these were festal chansons for enlivening the merriment of the Christmas celebrity, and not such religious songs as are current at this day with the common people under the same title, and which were substituted by those enemies of innocent and useful mirth, the Puritans."

Perhaps the oldest Christmas Carols which have come down to us are those in which every alternate line or every fourth line of the stanza is Latin. It has been conjectured, with some plausibility, that such carols were intended to be sung by clergy and laity in alternate lines. Perhaps the best known instance of this is the celebrated carol, "In dulci Jubilo." It is to be found in an old German book published in the year 1670. And even the original melody has come down to us as one of those old Roman Catholic tunes which Luther, on account of their beauty, retained in the Protestant service. I subjoin one verse as a specimen :—

   In dulci jubilo !
Let us our homage shew!
Our heart's joy reclineth
   In prasepio !
And like a bright star shineth,
   Matrix in gremio !
   Alpha es et O !

Sometimes the rhythm was as follows:—

In Bethlehem, that fair citie,
    Was born a child that was so free,
Lord and prince of high degree,
    Jam lucis orto sidere.

[See Notes Concerning In Dulci Jubilo]

One other example, which is part of a very ancient carol, may be cited :—

When He was born that made all thyng,
    Pastor, Creator omnium !
Angels then began to syng
    Veni, Redemplor gentium !"

I will now add the three carols which made most impression on me as a child, and which have led me to write this paper for the Wellingtonian. The first is of the simplest kind :—

Christ is born in Bethlehem,
    And in a manger laid.

Judas betrayed Him,
    And sold Him to the Jews.

The Jews crucified Him,
    And nailed Him to the tree.

They all went up to Calvary,
    To see Him on the Cross.

Soldiers stood watching
    The Body of our Lord.

Mary stood weeping;
    And rolled away the stone.

Jesus spoke to Mary,
    She answered " Rabboni."

Shout! shout! the victory!
    The glorious work is done.

The tune to which the above carol was sung was a modification of the old air "We won't go home till morning," and hence each line of the above couplets, being repeated many times, made up a complete stanza by itself. For instance, the eighth couplet, as sung, should be written thus :—

Shout! shout! the victory!
Shout! shout! the victory!
Shout! shout! the victory!
    The glorious work is done!
    The glorious work is done!
    The glorious work is done!
Shout! shout! the victory!
Shout! shout! the victory!
Shout! shout! the victory!
    The glorious work is done.

The second carol, which remains imprinted on my memory, was called "The Seven Joys of Mary." It must be very old, and have come down to us from ante-Puritan times. It is, however, very well known, and may be found in almost every collection of carols. I subjoin the first and sixth stanzas :—

The first good joy that Mary had,
    It was the joy of one;
To see the blessed Jesus Christ
    When He was first her Son.
When He was first her Son, good Lord;
    And happy may we be:
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
    To all eternity.

The next good joy our Mary had,
    It was the joy of six;
To see her own Son Jesus Christ
    Upon the Crucifix.
Upon the Crucifix, good Lord;
    And happy may we be:
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
    To all eternity.

[See The First Good Joy That Mary Had]

The third carol, which I well remember was by far the chief favourite with me as well as with my brother and sister, was even more quaint and simple in its character. A band of children having arrived at the front door, divided themselves into two companies, and sung as follows:—


A Company        "Sing! Sing!"

B Company            "What shall 'ee sing!"

A.                     "Sing all over one."

B.                         "What was One?"

Both Companies together in chorus: --

                        "One was called
                            The Righteous Man.
                        Save our souls
                            To rest, Amen."



A Company        "Sing! Sing!"

B Company            "What shall 'ee sing!"

A.                     "Sing all over two."

B.                         "What was two?"

Both Companies together in chorus: —

                         "Two was called the Jewry.
was called
                            The Righteous Man.
                        Save our souls
                            To rest, Amen."

And thus the carol progressed throughout stanzas 1, 2, 3, &c, up to 12, until it culminated thus: —

A Company        "Sing! Sing!"

B Company            "What shall 'ee sing!"

A.                     "Sing all over twelve."

B.                         "What was twelve?"

Both together, and without stopping to take breach once: —

                        "Twelve is the ring of bells,
                        [Eleven is the gate of heaven*]
                        "Ten is our Lady's hen,
                        "Nine is the water wine,
                        "Eight is the crooked straight,
                        "Seven is the bread of heaven,
                        "Six is the Crucifix,
                        "Five is the Man alive,
                        "Four is the open door,
                        "Three is the Trinity
                        "Two is the Jewry.
                        "One was called
                            The Righteous Man.
                        Save our souls
                            To rest, Amen."

Bearing this carol in memory, it was not without feelings of considerable astonishment that some years ago, at a leaving supper at the Rev. A. Carr's, I heard a Wellingtonian, on being called on for a song, produce the following. He had an idea that it was a comic song. It is, however, undoubtedly a Christmas Carol; and though some lines are corrupt, or at all events unintelligible, yet the whole structure of the carol is the same as the last. It is sung as a duet by A and B.

A.                     "Who'll sing the one-ers?"

B.                         "I'll sing the one-ers."

Both together.    "One, one is left alone,
 "And must for ever be so."

A.                     "Who'll sing the two-ers?"

B.                         "I'll sing the two-ers."

Both.                "Two, two the Lilywhite Boys,
 Dressed all in green, O.
                        One, one is left alone,
 And must for ever be so."

This carol progressed also through the numerals up to 12, and finally stood thus :—

Twelve, the twelve Apostles;
Eleven, the Eleven that went up to Heaven;
Ten, the Ten Commandments;
Nine, the Maiden Muses;
Eight, the brown-striped Walkers;
Seven, the seven stars in the sky;
Six, the virtuous horses;
Five, the nimble fingers;
Four, the Gospel Preachers;
Three, are the Rhymers;
Two, two, the Lilywhite Boys
Dressed all in green, O;
One, one is left alone,
And must for ever be so.

Similar: The Twelve Apostles - Version 2.

It might be thought that such a strange conglomeration of subjects was ill-suited to a Christmas carol. But to show that it was not unusual I will add the last verse of a carol that was very commonly sung in Gloucestershire about fifty years ago [ca 1820]. Like the two former carols, it began with the number one and advanced up to 12 as follows :—

The twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Twelve lords a leaping,
Eleven ladies dancing,
Ten pipers piping,
Nine drummers drumming,
Eight maids a milking,
Seven-swans a swimming,
Six geese a laying,
Five gold rings,
Four colly birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and
A partridge in a pear-tree.

See: Notes on the Twelve Days of Christmas

But I have detained the readers of the Wellingtonian too long; if, indeed, anyone has had the patience to read this paper to the end.

Laudator Temporis Acti.
(the pseudonym of the individual who submitted this article).


* The Eleventh was omitted in this text, but was supplied from Notes and Queries, 4th Series, Vol. II, Dec. 26, 1868, pp. 599-600. See: Old Christmas Carol at Beckington, Somerset. Return

Editor's Notes:

Editor's Note:


See also: The Twelve Apostles - Version 2.

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