The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Moon Shines Bright - Notes

English Folk Carol, 16th - 18th Century

Tune: Traditional English

Concerning this carol, Joshua Sylvestre observed in 1861 that

As is the case of some of the preceding [Dives and Lazarus], there are, doubtless, expressions in this simple effusion at which it is difficult to abstain from smiling. The perfect earnestness of these carols, however, and the charm they have long held over the people, are sufficient apologies for inserting them here. Often they are the sole vehicles of ancient religious stories that have come down to us in this form when they have perished in the more dignified chronicles.

Douglas Brice, in The Folk Carol of England, describes this song as a "carolite" sung by town folk as a kind of "luck-visit." He writes that a copy of the song, with the good wishes of the Town Crier inscribed, would be pushed under the front door by visitors — who would return later to collect a Christmas offering for the bellman or night watch-man. In rural areas, the same function was performed by The Wassail Song.

But if any carol can claim a case of mistaken identity, it's this one.  It's known by at least four different titles.  Sandys (1833) and Sharp (1911) gives it the title of The Moon Shines Bright. Bramley and Stainer (1871) give it the title of The Waits' Song, or "The Waits Carol" (Ian Bradley) or "The Old Waits Carol" (Dunstan). And the Oxford Book of Carols (1928) gives it the title of "The Bellman's Song" or also "The Bellman's Carol" (The Oxford Book of Carols and Eric Routley). It can also be found with the subtitle of "The Moon Shone Bright" as found in Husk (1868) and Chope (1894), both with ten verses.

Bramley and Stainer printed ten verses, substantially the same as printed in Sandys.  The Oxford Book of Carols provides six verses and three musical settings.

Like Sandys and Sharp, Charles L. Hutchins gives the title of "The Moon Shines Bright" and prints five verses (1, 2, 5, 6, and 10 from Sandys). The MIDI and Noteworthy Composer scores provided here are based on the melody Hutchins printed, which corresponds to the version given in Bramley and Stainer.

In their note to "The Bellman's Song" (#46), the editors of The Oxford Book of Carols note that verse three is a variant of the first verse of "Jerusalem, my happy home" (#132 in OBC, a Passiontide carol), the 26 verses of which are in the English Hymnal and Songs of Praise. The balance of the hymn, however, does not share any other verses with this carol.

Edith Rickert, in the notes to her version, also observed that verses 3 through 6, inclusive, are sometimes found as a separate poem under the title "O Fair Jerusalem!"

O fair, O fair Jerusalem!
    When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end?
    Thy joys when shall I see?

Thy fields were green as green could be,
    When from his glorious seat
The Lord our God he watered us
    With his heavenly dew so sweet.

And for the saving of our souls
    Christ died upon the cross:
We ne'er shall do for Jesus Christ
    As he hath done for us.

The life of man is but a span,—
    It is cut down in its flower;
We are here to-day, and to-morrow are gone;
    We are all dead in an hour.

From Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Early Christmas Carols (ca. 1850). Source: The Rossetti Archive, (; accessed February 4, 2007.)

A broadside containing "O Fair Jerusalem," printed by D. Wrighton at Birmingham between 1812 and 1830, can be seen at the Bodleian Library: Douce adds. 137(21) (Accessed February 4, 2007). It contains 12 verses, some of which correspond to this carol.

Another carol that begins with the third verse has ten other, completely different, verses. See: O, Fair Jerusalem, from A Good Christmas Box.

The Bellmen, The Waits, and The Like

Ian Bradley splits the difference on titles. As noted above, he gives the title of the song as "The Waits' Carol" but the title of the section is "The Moon Shines Bright." He prints the first six verses and the tenth as found in Sandys (except as noted; see The Moon Shines Bright). Bradley notes that the identification as the Bellman's Song stems from a version in which the last two lines of the first verse were:

And hark! the bellman of the night
Bids us awake and pray.

A bellman, says Bradley, was a watchman who went through the streets at night ringing a bell and crying out the hours.  As such, it was like the function performed by the early Waits. The Wassail Page makes a similar observation concerning the function of the bellman. For more information about Waits, see James Merryweather and Chris Gutteridge's The Waits Website and its mirror The Waits Website.

William Henry Husk gives us this portrait:

The functionary known in bygone times as the Bellman was a kind of night watchman, who, in addition to his staff and lantern, carried a bell, and at a certain period of the year was wont to arouse the slumbering inhabitants of the town to listen to some such effusion as that now printed. For this service (?) he looked for some gratuity at Christmas.

He also noted "a scarce and curious tract" first published by Thomas Dekker in 1608 under the title of "The Belman of London, which brought to light the most notorious villanies that are now practised in the kingdome." In this tract, Husk says, there is a woodcut engraving representing a Bellman of the period going his rounds, who carries a staff, lantern, and bell, and is followed by his dog.

Husk also reproduced a poem by Herrick called "The Bellman:"

"From noise of scare-fires rest ye free,
From murders Benedicite;
From all mischanges that may fright
Your pleasing slumbers in the night
Mercy secure ye all, and keep
The goblin from ye while ye sleep.
Past one o'clock, and almost two;
My masters all, Good day to you."

And Husk recalled Milton's mention in his "Il Penseroso," of

            "The belman's drowsy charm
To bless the doors from nightly harm."

Herrick gives at least one other poem titled "The Bell-man":

Along the dark and silent night,
With my lantern and my light
And the tinkling of my bell,
Thus I walk, and this I tell:
--Death and dreadfulness call on
To the general session;
To whose dismal bar, we there
All accounts must come to clear:
Scores of sins we've made here many;
Wiped out few, God knows, if any.
Rise, ye debtors, then, and fall
To make payment, while I call:
Ponder this, when I am gone:
--By the clock 'tis almost One.

Ralph Dunstan observed that the waits (or "Wayghtes") were originally musical watchmen who patrolled an assigned district -- usually their sponsor's estate -- sounding the hours of night and morning. Later, they were hired by towns to act as watchmen. Dunstan writes that "They generally "piped the watche" in a sing-song or short tune. One of the historic Glasgow calls was, 'All's well; a fine night, and an Irishman drowned in the Clyde.' The familiar 'Christmas Waits' are a relic of the old custom."

For more information about bellmen, waits, and the like, see:

Early Publications

The earliest known printing of some of the verses, according to both Husk and the Oxford Book of Carols, was a May Carol in Hone's Every-day Book (1821). According to Ian Bradley, the last verse of this version was:

And now our song is almost done
  And we can no longer stay,
So bless you all both great and small
  And we wish you a joyful May.

By way of comparison, the final verse printed by Husk (and also by Chope) is:

My song is done, I must begone
  I can stay no longer here,
God bless you all, both great and small,
  And send you a joyful new year!

Sandys printed the first version titled "The Moon Shines Bright" in 1833.  However, it was also widely printed in the Broadsides of that time. "Joshua Sylvestre" noted the existence a broadside copy printed about 1750, and that it was titled "A New Christmas Carol"; but, wrote Sylvestre, "I scarcely think it was composed later than the early part of the preceding century."

Versions of this song may have appeared even earlier.  In Shakespeare's As You Like It (1599-1600), the song "It was a lover and his lass," sung by two pages, contains a possible reference to verse 6 of this carol:

This carol they began that hour,
  With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that a life was but a flower
  In the spring time, the only pretty ring time.

Emphasis added; see Sandys verse 6.

A Christmas Carol? A Passion Carol? A May Carol?

In addition to the many names that this carol is known by, there is further cause for confusion.  Many authorities identify it as a Passion carol, which was adapted as a Christmas carol. A few identify it as a Christmas carol which was adapted as a Passion or May-time carol (See: May Day At Hitchin from William Hone). Finally, some state that it is a carol for New Year's Eve or Day.

However, it was not unusual for a "Christmas" carol to span both Christmas and Easter, especially in the 15th century.  Sandys (1833) includes several examples, including This endnes nyght I sawe a syght (page 11), Jhesu of a mayde thu woldest be born (page 15), and Now let vs sing with joy and mirth (page 30).

The Wassail Page printed the following commentary:

Another Wassail song interfered with!

"A. L. Lloyd believes that this was originally a secular May carol, which gradually collected this mass of verses at the hands of Puritan broadside writers. That Puritans had their hands in this version seems certain, but the last verse appears to be that of a wassailing song. The Oxford Book of Carols believes that the influence passed the other way — that lyrics from this text passed into the May carols. The first printed version appears to have been in Sandys's "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern" in 1833; this was a ten-stanza form generally similar to that used here."

For more of this commentary, see: The Bellman's Song.

A number of collectors, including Husk, have made similar observations. William Chappel, writing in 1859, observed that the May-day, or Mayers’ Song, which is printed by Hone, in his Every Day Book (i. 569), “as sung at Hitchin, in Hertfordshire,” is also to this tune [See: May Day At Hitchin]. It is semi-religious medley, — a puritanical May-song (“of great antiquity,” says Hone), and begins thus :—

“Remember us poor Mayers all,
    And thus we do begin,
To lead our lives in righteousness,
    Or else we die in sin.
We have been rambling all the night,
    And almost all the day,
And now, returned back again,
    We have brought you a branch of May.”

A. H. Bullen, in his 1885 A Christmas Garland cited as Robert Bell, in his “Songs of the Peasantry” (1857), who a fuller version of this carol:

Remember us poor Mayers all!
And thus do we begin
To lead our lives in righteous ways,
Or else we die in sin.

We have been rambling all the night
And almost all the day;
And now returned hack again,
We have brought you a branch of May.

A branch of May we have brought you,
And at your door it stands;
It is but a sprout,
But it’s well budded out
By the work of our Lord’s hands.

The hodges and trees they are so green,
As green as any leek;
Our heavenly Father he watered them
With his heavenly dew so sweet

The heavenly gates are open wide,
Our paths are beaten plain
And if a man be not too far gone,
He may return again.

The life of man is but a span,
It flourishes like a flower;
We are here to-day and gone to-morrow,
And we are dead in an hour.

The moon shines bright and the stars give a light,
A little before it is day;
So God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May!”

One of the May-day versions collected by Lucy E. Broadwood and J. A. Fuller Maitland (The Moon Shines Bright - Version 3) was sung by Thomas Gray, at Weston, near Hitchin; they also found a similar version sung by Mrs. Marshall, King's Langley.

Broadwood and Maitland also noted that a Northamptonshire version is sung to part of the tune "Brighton Camp," known as "The girl I left behind me;" found in Northamptonshire Notes and Queries for July 1886 and April 1887. And a version was located at Letchworth Rectory in 1883, which is given in the Folk-Lore Journal, iii. 185. Finally, the words of a version sung at Tilsworth, Bedfordshire, are given in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent for June 4, 1881. An incomplete Essex version will be found on p. 98. [May-Day Carol]

See: May Day At Hitchin from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, May 1).

Wide Distribution

As is the case with many old carols, this one has a wide geographic distribution (and, accordingly, a wide variety of versions). According to one source, most of the versions were found in the south and west of England, including Herefordshire, Surray, Southhampton (formerly Hampshire), Hertfordshire, and Cornwall.

Husk wrote in 1868 that the carol is much in use in the midland and western counties. A shorter version is found on sheets issued by the Seven Dials printers and likewise on west-country broadsides (on which the version that he reproduced), under the title of "The Bellman." In the Seven Dials copy the four line runs, "And hark! the bellman of the night." Both versions have much the appearance of being what were formally called "Bellman's Verses."

Sharp (1911) observed that his version was sung by Mrs. Gentie Phillips, a native of Tysoe, Warwiclishire, now living at Birmingham. He noted that this carol and The Sinner's Redemption, together with many others were sung every Christmas by the Tysoe carol singers. He also found versions at East Harptree, Somerset, and in Kent, and that other versions with tunes are printed in The Folk-Song Society’s Journal, Sussex Songs, English County Songs, Shropshire Folk-Lore, Songs of the West, and Carols New and Old (Bramley and Stainer), Sandys’ Christmas Carols, and on broadsides by Evans, Thompson and others.

Lucy Broadwood likewise observed that versions of this popular traditional carol, tunes and words widely differing, are in nearly every carol-book or collection of country songs, citing the same listing as Sharp, and adding Rimbault’s Carols.

She added that it is sung, with appropriate adaptations, either at Christmas time or on May Day. Hone states, in 1823, that it was one of the carols still annually printed on ballad-sheets. See: Christmas Carols now annually Printed, and The Moon Shines Bright, the May-Day version from Broadwood and Fuller Maitland, English Country Songs (1893).

One of the versions collected by Broadwood and Maitland, The Moon Shines Bright - Version 3, was sung by Thomas Gray, at Weston, near Hitchin; a similar version was sung by Mrs. Marshall, King's Langley.

Another of the versions collected by Broadwood and Maitland was sung by Gypsies of the name of Goby, well known in Sussex and Surrey. They wrote that the sombre variant of words seems to be especially liked by gypsies, and cited the singularly interesting versions in Shropshire Folk-Lore, and Notes and Queries, 8th series, ii., Dec. 24, 1892. They suggest that the reader compare the carols following in this collection: Hampshire Mummers Christmas Carol, Sussex Mummers' Christmas Carol, Bedfordshire May Day Carol.

Husk also noted a Mayers' Song, sung in Hertfordshire, and another version of the same song, which continues in use in Huntingdownshire. See the note from Bullen under The Moon Shines Bright which also reproduces a Christmas version of the Hitchin May-day song.

An Early Immigrant To The New World

As is often the case, this carol migrated to the New World. In the past, there has been a quaint practice in Green's Harbour, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, of Christmas Eve caroling, including this song, which has been handed down through the ages in the community's oral tradition. There is no written musical manuscript. It is unknown how long this tradition has been observed, but it's assumed that the carols came over from England with the first settlers some 180 years ago. For uncounted years, members of the village have walked from house to house, entered darkened kitchens after midnight, and sung the carol as occupants listened in the darkness. The carolers sing in as many homes as they can, concentrating on the elderly and shut-ins.

An full account of the practice is related by Gordon Cox in "The Christmas Carolling Tradition of Green's Harbour, Trinity Bay, Newfoundland" (printed in the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music, 1975). At that time, four carols were sung and it was a Christmas Eve tradition. Cox has written out the melody line for the four carols, as well as printed lyrics.

This tradition was brought to life by producer Chris Brookes in a radio show from "Soundprint" hosted by Lisa Simeone: A Little Before 'Tis Day. The nearly 30-minute show is streamed from that site (requires Real Player™), and is also available on CD. The show includes interviews and a recording of the song, with an apparently new tune. At that time, this was a New Year's Eve tradition which consisted of one song (three verses). There was concern that the tradition would not survive as few of the participants were from younger generations. See: The Moon Shines Bright - Version 1.

A musical score of this carol (and 25 others) are found in the book "Comfort and Joy - Christmas Songs of Newfoundland and Labrador," edited and arranged by Eric West. (; accessed February 4, 2007). MIDI sequences of the music can be heard on this page. However, this appears to be a new tune.

Versions On This Site:

The Moon Shines Bright - Version 1 - Sandys (1833), Chope (1894), and numerous others.

The Moon Shines Bright - Version 2 - Sharp (1911)

The Moon Shines Bright - Version 3 - Lucy E. Broadwood and J. A. Fuller Maitland (1908)

The Moon Shines Bright - A Good Christmas Box, 1847

The Moon Shines Bright - RR Terry, 1933

The Bellman's Song - Version 1 - William Henry Husk (1868); see The Wassail Page

The Bellman's Song - Version 2 - Oxford Book of Carols (1928)

The Waits' Song - Bramley and Stainer (circa 1871)

Note: Most of these pages have additional notes.

See generally Christmas Carols - William Chappell.


Note that Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvestre" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4.

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