The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

As It Fell Out One May Morning

Alternate Title: The Holy Well

Compare: The Bitter Withy

Words and Music: English Folk, England (possibly Herfordshire), 15-17th Century
Bramley and Stainer indicate "Traditional (Derbyshire)"

Source: William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833)

1. As it fell out one May morning,
    And upon one bright holiday,1
Sweet Jesus asked of his dear Mother,
    If he might go to play.

2. To play, to play, sweet Jesus shall go,
    And to play pray get you gone,2
And let me hear of no complaint
    At night when you come home.

3. Sweet Jesus went down to yonder town,
    As far as the Holy Well,
And there did see as fine children
    As any tongue can tell.

4. He said, God bless you every one,
    And your bodies Christ save and see:3
Little children, shall I play with you,
    And you shall play with me.

5. But they made answer to him, No:3b
    They were lords' and ladies' sons;
And he, the meanest of them all,
    Was but a maiden's child, born in an ox's stall.4

6. Sweet Jesus turned him around,
    And he neither laugh'd nor smil'd,
But the tears came trickling from his eyes
    Like water from the skies.

7. Sweet Jesus turned him about,
    To his Mother's dear home went he,
And said, I have been in yonder town,
    As after you may see.

8. I have been down in yonder town,5
    As far as the Holy Well,
There did I meet as fine children
    As any tongue can tell.

9. I bid God bless them ever one,
    And their bodies Christ save and see:3
Little children, shall I play with you,
    And you shall play with me.

10. But they made answer to me, No,3c
    They were lords' and ladies' sons,
And I, the meanest of them all,
    Was but a maiden's child, born in an ox's stall.4

11. Though you are6 but a maiden's child,
    Born in an ox's stall,
Thou art the Christ, the King of Heaven,
    And the Saviour of them all.

12. Sweet Jesus, go down to yonder town,
    As far as the Holy Well,
And take away those sinful souls,
    And dip them deep in Hell.

13. Nay, nay, sweet Jesus said,
    Nay, nay, that may not be,7
For there are too many sinful souls
    Crying out for the help of me.

[14. O then spoke8 the Angel Gabriel,
    Upon one good Saint Stephen,9
Altho' you're but a maiden's child,
    You are the King of Heaven.]


1. Or: 'On one bright holiday' (Bramley and Stainer; A Good Christmas Box) Return

2. Or: 'And to play now get your gone' (Bramley and Stainer; A Good Christmas Box) Return

3. Or: 'May Christ your portion be' (Bramley and Stainer; A Good Christmas Box); Husk has "And He was but a maiden's child, | Born in an ox's stall." Return

3b. Or: "But they jointly answered, No." (A Good Christmas Box) Return

3c. Or: "But they answered me No"  (A Good Christmas Box) Return

4. A Good Christmas Box and Bramley and Stainer have only 'Born in an ox's stall' Return

5. Or: 'Yea, I have been in yonder town' (Bramley and Stainer); Or: "I've been in yonder town" (A Good Christmas Box) Return

6. 'Thou art' instead of 'you are' throughout (Bramley and Stainer) Return

7. Or: 'that must not be' (Bramley and Stainer; A Good Christmas Box) Return

8. Or: Then spake (Bramley and Stainer); Or "O then bespoke ..." (A Good Christmas BoxReturn

9. Or: 'Upon a good set steven', with Bramley and Stainer adding the note 'Appointed time.' Return

Sandys' Note:

This [is] taken from popular broad-side carols, [and contains] rather curious legends, of which may have already been observed in the old carol for St. Stephen. [Saint Stephen Was An Holy Man]

Also found in William Sandys, Christmas-tide, Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music (London: John Russell Smith, 1852), pp. 251-3.

Also found in A Good Christmas Box (Dudley, 1847), which contains all 14 verses.



Sheet Music from Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old, Third Series (London: Novello, Ewer & Co., ca 1878), Carol #59.
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Holy_Well_59a.gif (284054 bytes)

Holy_Well_59b.gif (450331 bytes)

Sheet Music from William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868)

Sheet Music from Martin Shaw and Percy Dearmer, The English Carol Book, First Series (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd., 1913), Carol #16

Additional Note:

Two musical settings for this carol can be found at carol #56, Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, eds., The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928).  Several sheet music collections are said to contain this carol; try to locate these collections.

A later publication of this poem can be found in "The Oxford Book of Ballads" (Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed., 1910).  A copy can be found online at and on this site. That version omits the last verse as reproduced by Sandys in 1833 (as do both Sylvester and Bullen).

According to one correspondent, verse 9 is the source of Dicken's line "God bless us, every one" by Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.

Some versions treat this carol as being composed of seven verses (combining 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, etc), rather than 14 verses.

Also see the notes under The Bitter Withy.

Joshua Sylvester, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861):

This popular carols preserves in quaint and simple verse the outlines of an old legend of the dark ages. The people were anxious to learn more about the first year of the life of Jesus than the Scriptures supplied, and the priests and monks invented various pleasing stories to amuse and instruct them. The Apocryphal Books of the New Testament, also, afforded a great many religious tales. Some of these were put into verse. A specimen may be seen in the following. On the broad-sheet (printed at Gravesend in the last century), it is stated to be "A very Ancient Carol."

In a note to the first line, Sylvester adds:

I might mention, as an indication of the probable date of this simple composition, that several ballads of the reign of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth began in this style:

"As it fell out on a holiday,
As it fell out on a Whitsunday," etc.

The whole piece has a strong ballad flavor.

Note that Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvester" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4. The versions given by Sylvester and Bullen omit the 14th verse, which was found in Sandys, pp 149-152. See Bullen's note, below.

William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868:

The broadside printers almost invariably describe this as "A Very Ancient Carol," and in doing so they are, unquestionably, not far from wrong. The legend dates back, no doubt, to Pre-Reformation times, when such tales were invented by priests to satisfy the cravings of the common people for more detailed particulars about the life of our Blessed Lord than the Holy Scriptures afforded; but the composition of the carol may be ascribed, with reasonable probability, to the latter half of the sixteenth century, to the ballads of which period it bears a strong resemblance in point of style. The carol is now printed from a sheet copy published during the last century, on which it is described as "A Carol on Christ's Humility to Sinners." There are some touches in this carol which point out with remarkable clearness the class of persons to whom it was addressed; such, for instance, as the coupling with the permission to the Child to go to play [with] the injunction to "behave" Himself; the pride of the "lords' and ladies' sons," and the wounded feelings of the Boy at their haughty rejection of His offer.

The carol has a widely spaced popularity. On a broadside copy printed at Gravesend there is placed immediately under the title a woodcut purporting to be a representation of "The Site of the Holy Well, Palestine;" but the admiration excited thereby for the excellent good taste of the printer is too soon, alas! dispelled, for between the second and third stanzas we see another woodcut representing a feather clad and crowned negro seated on a barrel smoking; ― a veritable ornament of a tobaccoist's paper. One almost wonders at the omission of the usual accompanying conundrum.

A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), pp. 46-8. Bullen ends with verse 13, above, but adds the following note at page 254:

I have ventured to end the carol with this stanza. In all the copies that I have seen an additional stanza follows—

O then spoke the angel Gabriel,
Upon one good Saint Stephen,
Although you’re but a maiden’s child,
You are the King of heaven.”

The conclusion is spoiled by the introduction of these mysterious lines, which have no connection with the context.

Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p. 84, under the title “The Holy Well.” She notes, at page 153:

The Holy Well and the three following [The Bitter Withy (Three Jolly Jerdins), The The Cherry Tree Carol, and The Carnal and the Crane] belong to a mass of traditions such as appear in the Vita Christi (MS. 29,434, circa 1400, in the British Museum), of which seemingly only these few have survived, at least in carol form. In an eighteenth-century broadside edition this poem is described as “a very ancient carol,” and indeed, in spirit, as Mr. Bullen* observes, it seems to be as old as the fifteenth century. Moreover, in the Vita Christi (fol. 56, 61) we have illustrations of Christ as well as other children, which may refer to this or a similar legend.”

*Dr. Rickert is referring to A. H. Bullen, A Christmas Garland - Carols and Poems, 1885.

Also found in Maud Karpeles, ed., Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs, Vol. 2 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), #360, pp. 479-484.

See, generally, Corpus Christi Day and the Performance of Mysteries, from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, June 2).


See and play the Noteworthy Composer score if you have installed the NoteWorthy Composer Browser Plug-in


Only tested by Noteworthy for Netscape, Opera, and IE Browsers (Versions 4 or 5)
In my experience, it also works with Firefox.

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.

Related Hymns and Carols