The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Some Account
Christmas Carols

For Christmas

Author: Unknown.

Source: Christmas Carols, or Sacred Songs, Suited to the Festival of our Lord's Nativity (London: John William Parker, 1833), pp. 7-N.

Note that the footnotes or endnotes to this text are those of your editor, and are not part of the original text. DA


The origin and formation of the word "Carol" are uncertain. By some writers it is supposed to be of Latin, by others of Italian, by others of French, extraction : but whencesoever it was derived, and whatever may be its etymology, it has been long naturalized in our language, being familiarly used by Spenser, Shakespeare, Bacon, and, doubtless, other authors in the time of Queen Elizabeth. The meaning of the word is generally a song of joy and exultation; specially of religious joy: in particular, the "Christmas Carol" denotes such a song, adapted to the festival of Christ's Nativity.

The "Christmas Carol" is of high antiquity: indeed, the Angels' Hymn of "Glory to God in the highest, &c," recorded in St. Luke's history of our Lord's Nativity, has been sometimes cited, as the first instance of this sort of holy song. With allusion to this Hymn, Bishop Jeremy Taylor, in his Great Exemplar, Part I., Sect, iv., says, "As soon as these blessed Choristers had sung their Christmas Carol, and taught the Church a hymn, to put into her offices for ever in the anniversary of this festivity, the Angels returned into heaven." And with reference to the "Angelical Hymn," introduced by our Church, after the example of antiquity, into her Communion Service, L'Estrange remarks, in his Alliance of Divine Offices, chap, vii., "Called it is the Angelical Hymn, because the first part thereof is the Nativity Carol, mentioned Luke ii. 13, sung by the Angels." Milton, also, in Paradise Lost, xii., 364, thus mentions the same hymn:

His place of birth a solemn Angel tells
To simple shepherds, keeping watch by night;
They gladly thither haste, and by a quire
Of squadron'd Angels hear his carol sung.

This hymn was introduced at a very early period into the offices of the Christian Church ; being sung either at Morning Prayer, or in the Communion Service, or before the Lessons, on Christmas-day, as Mr. Bingham states, in his Antiquities of the Christian Church, book xiv., c. ii.: in this last case more particularly retaining its original character of the "Christmas Carol." In process of time other hymns of the same sort appear to have been formed after this example ; and it is stated by an ancient Ritualist, cited by Mr. Brand, in his Popular Antiquities, (vol. i., p. 371, Ellis's edition,) "that in the earlier ages of the Church, the Bishops were accustomed, on Christmas Day, to sing Carols among their clergy."i

It would be difficult, probably, even if it were desirable, to trace this matter in detail: it should seem, however, that before the era of the Reformation the singing of "Christmas Carols" was very commonly practised in this country, as well as in other countries of Christendom.

In a Latin Poem, entitled The Popish Kingdom, by Naogeorgus, a Bavarian, written about the middle of the sixteenth century, and soon after translated into English, or rather adapted to the condition of things in England, by Barnaby Googe, occurs the following mention of "Carols," in his account of Christmas-day:

Then comes the day wherein the Lorde did bring his birth to passe;
Whereas at midnight up they rise, and every man to masse.

And, after some intervening verses,

Three masses every priest doth sing upon that solemne day,
With offerings unto every one, that so the more may play.

This done, a woodden childe in clowtes is on the aultar set,
About the which both boyes and gyrles do daunce and trymly jet;
And Carrols sing in prayse of Christ, and, for to helpe them heare,
The organs aunswere every verse with sweete and solemne cheare.
The priestes do rore aloude; and round about the parentes stande,
To see the sport, and with their voyce do helpe them and their bande.

Meanwhile a modification had taken place with respect to the "Christmas Carols" in two remarkable particulars. For whereas these "Carols" had originally formed, and still in some degree continued to form, a part of the public offices of the Church, they had now been brought into a different use; being not confined to the Church Services, but being sung by parties of singers, or nocturnal itinerant musicians, called appropriately "waits," or watchmen, as the word signifies; who roamed about the streets from house to house, on Christmas eve, and other nights preceding the festival of our Lord's nativity, knocking at the doors, singing their Christmas Carols, and wishing a happy new year. This custom is thus described by Barnaby Googe, in the poem already quoted:

Three weekes before the day whereon was borne the Lorde of Grace,
And on the Thursdaye boyes and girls do runne in every place,
And bounce and beate at every doore, with blowes and lustie snaps,
And crie, the Advent of the Lord not born as yet perhaps.
And wishing to the neighbours all, that in the houses dwell,
A happy yeare, and every thing to spring and prosper well.

And, whereas the "Christmas Carols" had been originally religious songs, they had, in many instances at least, deviated from that rule, and had become little else than incitements to the secular mirth and enjoyment, which now characterized the season of Christmas, and had well-nigh superseded the primitive holy character of the time. A curious specimen of this deviation occurs in an Anglo-Norman Carol, of the date of the thirteenth century, given by Mr. Brand, in his Popular Antiquities, vol. i. p. 371, which is, in fact, a jovial drinking song.ii And Mr. Warton, in his History of English Poetry, vol. Iii, p. 142, 4to., notices a scarce book, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, in the year 1521, containing "a sett of Christmas Carols," which were festal chansons, for enlivening the merriments of the Christmas celebrity ; and not such religious songs as are current at this day with the common people, under the same title."

After the Reformation the "Christmas Carol" was still continued, as one of the peculiarities of that season of rejoicing.

In the description of a good and hospitable housekeeper, in 1631, cited by Mr. Brand, p. 351, occurs the following picture of Christmas festivities :— "Suppose Christmas now approaching, the ever-green Ivie trimming and adorning the portals and partcloses of so frequented a building ; the usual carolls, to observe antiquitie, cheerefully sounding; and that which is the complement of his inferior comforts, his neighbours, whom he tenders as members of his owne family, joyne with him in this consort of mirth and melody."iii

At the end of Withers Juvenilia, published about the same period, in a "Miscellany of Epigrams, Sonnets, Epitaphs, &c," is a "Christmas Carroll," which contains a recital of the pastimes in vogue at that season. This, and other similar compositions which might be cited, of the seventeenth century, make, however, no pretensions to any religious character: but may be more aptly represented in the language of a contemporary, as "the chearful carrols of the wassell-cup."

But in the mean time others also, of a religious character, were in frequent use. In a work in rhyme, intituled Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, which was printed at London in 1557, among the "Christmas husbandlie fare," the author, Thomas Tusser, recommends "jolie carols;" and then introduces a "Christmas Carol," four lines of which are transcribed by Mr. Warton, in his History of English Poetry, iii. 306.

Even Christ I meane, that virgin's child,
In Bethlem born:
That Lamb of God, that Prophet mild,
Crowned with thorn!

The same Historian notices a license granted to John Tysdale, in 1562, for printing "Certayne goodly Carowles to be songe to the glory of God;" and again, "Crestenmas Carowles auctorisshed by my lord of London."

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 Warmstry, D. D., the author of a very rare Tract, intituled The Vindication of the Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ, in 1648, as quoted by Mr. Brand, p. 360, thus judiciously delivers his sentiments concerning the practice under consideration. "Chrisimasse 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 unlawfull, and may be profitable, if they be sung with grace in the heart."

But to whatever merit for good intention these compositions may be entitled, on the score of execution their pretensions seem to have been very slight. A specimen of them is given by Mr. Brand, in a very curious Carol in the Scottish language, preserved in "Ane Compendious Booke of godly and spirituall Sangs, Edinburgh, 1621, printed from an old copy:" on which Mr. Brand remarks, "It is hardly credible, that such a composition should ever have been thought serious. Had the author designed to render his subject ridiculous, he could not more effectually have made it so: and yet we will absolve him from having had in the smallest degree any such intention." {Popular Antiquities, p. 378.) Scotland, however, appears to have shared this character with her southern neighbour. "I saw, some years ago," says Mr. Brand, p. 381, "at Newcastle upon Tyne, in the printing-office of the late Mr. Saint, an hereditary collection of Ballads, numerous almost as the celebrated one in the Pepysian Library at Cambridge. Among these, of which the greater part were the veriest trash imaginable, and which deserve to be neither printed again nor remembered, I found several Carols for this season; for the Nativity, St. Stephen's Day, Childermas Day, &c . . . . The style of all of these was so puerile and simple, that I could not think it would have been worth while to have invaded the hawker's province by exhibiting any specimens of them."

Throughout the succeeding period, and down to the present time, the custom of singing "Christmas Carols" has been preserved, and is still in existence, varying probably in circumstances and degree, but dispersed more or less over the different parts of the country. In Heath's Account of the Scilly Islands, quoted by Brand, p. 381, a custom is stated to prevail, of the congregation "singing Carols on a Christmas-day at Church." Dr. Goldsmith, in his Vicar of Wakefield, chap, iv., writing about the year 1763, and laying the scene of his narrative at a small cure in the north of England, among the other festival observances practised by the inhabitants, says that "they kept up the Christmas Carol"

Mr. Brand, in his Popular Antiquities, p. 352, prepared for publication in 1795, informs us, that "Little boys and girls go about at Newcastle upon Tyne, and other places in the north of England, some few nights before, on the night of the Eve of Christmas-day, and on that of the day itself," "knocking at the doors, and singing their Christmas Carols." A writer in the Gentleman's Magazine, for May, 1811, quoted by Mr. Ellis in his edition of Brand, describing the manner in which the inhabitants of the North Riding of Yorkshire celebrate Christmas, says, " About six o'clock on Christmas-day, I was awakened by a sweet singing under my window ; surprised at a visit so early and unexpected, I arose, and looking out of the window I beheld six young women, and four men, welcoming with sweet music the blessed morn." In the metropolis, and in some of the southern counties, the writer of this article has often been a witness of the like custom, the performance, however, commencing at midnight, when the day is ushered in by the ringing of the Church-bells, and the performers being generally the Church-singers. And among the "lingerings of the holyday customs of former times," which "exercised a delightful spell over the imagination" of the American writer who visited England not many years ago, and in 1820 communicated his impressions to the public in the Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, "the Christmas Carol," as one of the remaining accompaniments of that season of festival, has not been forgotten. The scene of the narrative is in Yorkshire. "I had scarcely got into bed," he says, "when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band, which I concluded to be the waits from some neighbouring village. They went round the house, playing under the windows. . . . The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened: they became more and more tender and remote; and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon my pillow, and I fell asleep." And on the following morning, “while I lay musing on my pillow, I heard the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door, and a whispering consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chanted forth an old Christmas Carol, the burden of which was,

Rejoice, our Saviour he was born
On Christmas day in the morning."

These observations have been thrown together, by way of introduction to some "Sacred Songs," about to be offered to the reader, under the title of Christmas Carols. The custom of singing such songs, which appears to be of a very high antiquity, and to have taken hold, for an indefinite series of years, of the minds of our countrymen, is in itself blameless, and capable of being made productive of good. "Even the sound of the waits," as the author of the Sketch Book beautifully observes, "rude as may be their minstrelsy, breaks upon the mid-watches of a winter night with the effect of perfect harmony. As I have been awakened by them, in that still and solemn hour, when 'deep sleep falleth upon man,' I have listened with a hushed delight; and connecting them with the sacred and joyous occasion, have almost fancied them into another celestial choir, announcing peace and good-will to mankind."

But the forms of words, under which the custom has been maintained, have, it is apprehended, very slight claims on approbation. Those which are merely incitements to the enjoyment of feasting and carousing, of the Christmas good cheer of

Minc'd-pies and plum-porridge,
Good ale, and strong beer,

are a manifest departure from the original form and intention of the "Christmas Carol," as a song of religious joy and exultation; and are calculated to produce effects very different from that sort of rejoicing which is the proper accompaniment of the festival of our Lord's Nativity. Those, on the other hand, which are designed to have a more suitable tendency, however praiseworthy in their object, are, from their style of composition, it is feared, ill-qualified to attain it: being less likely to encourage, even in the rudest minds, such religious feelings as become the seasons and services appropriated to religion, than to depreciate, in those which are at all lightly predisposed, things of the highest value, and to bring ridicule and contempt on the most sacred subjects. The reader who has had any experience in these productions will probably have forestalled this expression of the writers feelings.

It has, accordingly, been thought, that such little poems as have been described above, "written in a plain and easy style of versification, and at the same time breathing proper sentiments of piety, could hardly fail to be generally useful, and might, perhaps, supersede the rude strains which are current throughout the country, under the same title." Upon this suggestion, and with this view, the following little poems have been undertaken. The subjects of them are religious, and adapted to the season of Christ's nativity, in pursuance of the notion which has been already noticed, as proper to the "Christmas Carol." The attainment of poetical excellence, if, indeed, attainable by the present author, is judged less important than the expression of appropriate sentiments, in language neither difficult nor unpleasing. Having been written with a view to being sung, the adapting of them to suitable tunes has been thought not unworthy of some attention: and a tune, which is esteemed fit for the occasion, is accordingly recommended for each "Carol." That the undertaking is harmless and unblameable, is confidently assumed; there is, perhaps, no presumption in the hope, that it may, by the Divine blessing, be rendered instrumental to the purposes of our holy religion, by assisting some of our countrymen in complying with the Apostle's exhortation, of "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."—Eph. v., 19, 20.


Of the Compositions adapted to these Carols, the fifth, twelfth, and fourteenth, are for a single voice ; the seventh and eleventh for one or two voices ; the sixteenth for two or three voices ; the rest may be sung as either solos or trios, as shall be found desirable. When the latter are sung as solos, the second of the three staves is for the voice, the small notes in this staff, together with the base, making the accompaniment. When performed as trios, the upper staff is for the second voice, the middle for the first, and the lower for the base; the small notes in the last belong solely to the accompaniment. The small notes in the part for the second voice, are to be resorted to only when the others are beyond the compass of the singer.

The two staves united by a brace, are not only applicable to the above-mentioned purposes, but form the accompaniment also, in whatever manner the Carols are sung. The words between the second and third staves apply to both, when a base voice is added.


Editor's Footnotes

i Mr Bourne was quoting Durant, Rat. Lib. 6. C. 86. S. 9, “That on the Day of the Nativity, it was usual for the Bishops of some Churches to sing among their Clergy, in the Episcopal House, which Song was undoubted a Christmas-Carol. The Reason of this Custom seems to be an Imitation of the Gloria in Excelsis, or Glory be to God on High, &c. which was sung by the Angels, as they hovered o'er the Fields of Bethlehem, in the Morning of the Nativity. For even that Song, as the learned Bishop Taylor observes, was a Christmas Carol.” Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities (1777), p. 182. See also Henry Ellis, Observations on Popular Antiquities. Vol. 1. (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, et al., 1813), p. 370-371.

ii The song quoted was "Seignors ore entendez a nus," translated by Mr. Douce as "Now, Lordlings, listen to our ditty," (the translation is on pp. 372-374). See Ellis, Vol. 1, 1813, pp. 371-374.

iii Ellis, Vol. 1, 1813, p. 351, footnote e.

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