The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmas Carols

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues,- Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, pp. 91-3

Dr. Furnivall thinks that the word Carol is derived from Corolla or Chorolla. Bishop Taylor observes that the Gloria in Excelsis," the well-known hymn sung by the angels to the shepherds at our Lord’s Nativity, was the earliest Christmas Carol. Bourne cites Durandus, to prove that in the earlier ages of the churches the bishops were accustomed on Christmas Day to sing carols among their clergy. This species of pious song is undoubtedly of most ancient date. Compare Hagmena. In 1521 was printed a set of Christmas Carols. These, remarks Warton, were festal chansons for enlivening the merriments of the Christmas celebrity; and not such religious songs as are current at tins day with the common people, under the same title, and which were substituted by those enemies of innocent and youthful mirth, the Puritans. The boar's head soused was anciently the first dish on Christmas Day, and was carried up to the principal table in the hall with great state and solemnity. For this indispensable ceremony there was a carol. "This carol," Warton adds, "yet with many innovations, is retained at Queen’s College in Oxford," nor has it been discontinued since Warton’s day. At present, it is usual for two attendants to bear aloft into the hall on Christmas Day the boar’s head, on a large platter, preceded by a fellow of the College in surplice; but the head is fictitious, being merely a painted counterfeit with a brawn enclosed. Compare Boar's Head. William Cornish received at Christmas, 1502, the sum of 13s. 4d. "for setting of a carralle upon Christmas Day, in reward." In the "Paradyce of Daynty Devises," 1578, are hymns by Jasper Heywood and Francis Kinwelmersh for Christmas Day, Whitsunday, and Easter Day; and in the Christmas Prince, 1607, occurs the carol sung by him who brought into the hall the boar’s head at the celebration in St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1607. It is a species of burlesque. The Christmas Prince, ed. 1816, p. 24. These older pious chansons were sometimes borrowed from the early Christian poets, and the early Scotish writers did not scruple to set their quid and godly ballates to secular tunes. In the Church-wardens’ accounts of St. Mary-at-Hill, London, 1537, is the tantalizing entry: — "To Sr. Mark for carolis for Christmas and for 5 square Books. iijs. iiijd," Here is a specimen from the first known impression of the Dundee Psalms, 1578:


[To be sung with the tune of Balulalow.]

(Angelus, ut opinor, loquitur.)

" I come from heuin to tell
The best nowellis that euer befell;
To yow the tythings trew I bring,
And I will of them say and sing.

This day to yow is borne ane Chylde
Of Mary meik and Virgin mylde;
That blyssit bairne, bening and kynde
Sall yow reioyce bath hart and mynde.

It is the Lord Christ, God and man,
He will do for yow what he can;
Himself your Sauiour will he,
Fra sin and hell to mak yow fre.

He is your richt saluatioun,
From euerlasting dampnatioun,
That ye may ring in gloir and blis,
For euer mair in heuin with his.

Ye sall him find but mark or wying,
Full sempill in ane cribe lying;
Sa lyis he quhilk yow hes wrocht,
And all this warld maid of nocht.

Let us reioyce and be blyith,
And with the Hyrdis go full swyith
And se quhat God of his grace hes done,
Throw Christ to bring vs to his throne.

My saull and lyle, stand vp and se
Quha lys in ane cribe of tre
Quhat Babe is that, so gude and fair?
It is Christ, Goddis Sone and air.

[. . . . .]

O God that maid all creature,
How art thow now becummin sa pure,
That on the hay and stray will ly
Amang the assis, oxin and ky?

[. . . . .]

O my deir hart, young Jesus sweit,
Prepair thy creddill in my spreit,
And I sall rocke the in my hart,
And neuer mair fra the depart.

But I sall praise the euer moir
With sangis sweit vnto thy gloir,
The kneis of my hart sall bow
And sing that richt Balulalow."

[. . . . . . ]

Lamb, in his Notes on the poem on the "Battle of Flodden Field," 1774, tells us that the Nurse’s Lullaby Song, Balow (or He balelow"), is literally French, "He bas ! la le loup." "Hush ! there’s the wolf."

At the end of Wither’s " Fair Virtue," 1622, is a "Christmas Carroll," in which the customs of that season are not overlooked. Among Herrick’s "Noble Numbers," is a "Christmas Carol sung to the King in the presence at White Hall." The musical part composed by Mr. Henry Lawes. Warmstrey, in his "Vindication of Christ's Nativity," 1648, observes: "Christmasse 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. New Yeares Gifts, if performed without superstition, may be harmless provocations to Christian love and mutuall testimonies thereof to good purpose, and never the worse because the heathens have them at the like times." In " Batt upon Batt," a poem attributed to John Speed, of St. John’s College, Oxford, 1694, p. 4, speaking of Batt’s carving knives, &c., the author tells us:

Without their help, who can good Christmas keep?
Our teeth would chatter, and our eyes would weep.
Batt is the cunning engineer, whose skill
Makes fools to carve the goose and shape the quill
Fancy and wit unto our meals supplies:
Carols, and not minc’d-meat, makes Christmas pies.
‘Tis mirth, not dishes sets a table off;
Brutes and phanaticks eat, and never laugh."

In Goldsmith’s time, as he tells us in his "Vicar of Wakefield," the rustics held the Christmas Carol in careful observance." "In the Scilly Islands they have a custom of singing carols on a Christmas Day at church, to which the congregation make contribution by dropping money into a hat carried about the church when the performance is over." Heath’s Account of the Scilly Islands, p. 125.

A writer in the "Gentleman’s Magazine" for May, 1811, says: "About six o’clock on Christmas Day, I was awakened by a sweet singing under my window; surprized 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 "Doctour Doubble Ale," a satire on the irregularities of the clergy in the time of Henry VIII., there is an anecdote of a parson who had a Christmas carol sung at a funeral. In a satirical tract, which was printed in 1642, the author, among other proposals made for the consideration of the Parliament, suggested that, "instead of carols, which farmers sonnes, and servants sing on Christ’s Birth-day before they may eate or drink, you take order, that by some of your best city-Poets (who will write certainly to their capacity) there be some songs made of the great deeds that his Excelencie did at Worcester and Edgehill." Antiq. Report., 1807, iii., 32.

Several collections of old Christmas carols have been made since Mr. Brand’s time. Among them may be mentioned the volume edited by Mr. Wright for the Percy Society, Mr. Sandys’s book, and a little quarto volume edited by Dr. Rimbault, in which the carols are accompanied by the tunes. For a notice of all the early printed collections known to exist see my "Handbook of E. E. Lit." and Bibl. Coll. Art. Christmas. There are carols in many other books of usual occurrence, such as Tusser’s "Points of Husbandry," Aylet's "Wife not Ready Made but Bespoken," 1653, Herrick's "Hesperides," 1648, Furnivall's Babees Book, 1863, &c.

Editor's Notes:

Mr. Hazlitt was not sufficiently specific in some of his references in the above paragraph.  Messrs. Sandys, Wright and Rimbault each authored two (or more) volumes of Christmas carols, which include:

William Sandys:

Thomas Wright:

Edward F. Rimbault, A Little Book of Christmas Carols (1863). I have been unable to locate a copy of Dr. Rimbault's collection A Collection of Old Christmas Carols, 1861.  No copies of the former appear to exist on World Cat; no copies are available for sale on ABE Books at the present (May 26, 2006). Some later scholars and critics have criticized Dr. Rimbault's scholarship; I hold no position, but would dearly love to get a  (photo) copy.

The authors of the New Oxford Book of Carols hold the position that William Sandys and William Henry Husk collaborated in 1861 under the name of "Joshua Sylvestre" to produce the volume titled A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. Husk would produce his own volume in 1868: Songs of the Nativity.

Herrick's "Hesperides" is not available at Project Gutenberg, but is available at Newcastle University: Hesperides and His Noble Numbers (a part of their Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick project). See also Christmas Customs from Hesperides by Herrick and The Lyrical Poems Of Robert Herrick.

See, generally, Bibliography of Hymns and Carols of Christmas. See, also, this note from William Hone's The Every Day Book: Christmas Carols.

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