The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmas Carols - William Chappell

Source: William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. London: Chappell & Co., 1859, pp. 750-758.

Christmas Carols were of two sorts: the one serious, and commonly sung through the streets, or from house to house, to usher in the Christmas morning; the other of a convivial character, and adapted to the festive entertainments of the season. We have seen how, in the fifteenth century, a minstrel could make one tune to answer for both,—singing

“Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell,
This is the salutation of the Angel Gabriel,”

in the morning, to the same tune as

“Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale,
For our blessed lady’s sake, bring us in good ale,”

in the evening (ante i. 42); but he adds “If so be that ye will have another tune, it may be at your pleasure,” and I have no doubt that the festive carols were usually sung to dance-tunes. [See The Salutation Carol and Bring Us In Good Ale] I have found many which are directed to be sung to such airs, and one of the significations of the word “caroling,” and the sense in which it was most frequently used in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was to sing or warble to dancing. (See Chaucer passim.) Caroling was afterwards used to express the singing or warbling of a lively tune, with or without the dancing.

I imagine the word to be used in this sense by Trevisa, vicar of Berkeley, who, in the year 1398, made a free translation of a book on the nature and qualities of different things, written in Latin about thirty years before, by an English Franciscan friar (Bartholommus, De Proprietatibus Rerum). He tells us that when boys had passed the age of seven years, they were “sette to lernynge, and compellid to take lernynge and chastysyrige.” That at that age, they are “plyaunt of body, able and lyghte to moevinge, wytty to lerne carolles, and wythoute besynesse, and drede noo perylles more than betyrige with a rodde; and they love an apple more than golde,” &c. I suspect that the boys were more ready to warble lively tunes, and perhaps to catch up a few of the words, than to learn religious songs.

Warton, in his History of English Poetry, attributes the introduction of the religious carol to the Puritans; but this is clearly a mistake, for there are many extant which were in use long before the age of puritanism. Nevertheless, the “jolly carols,” as Tusser calls them, were by far the more popular in early times.

“The lewid peple than algates agre,
    And caroles singen everi’ Criste messe tyde,
Not with schamfastenes, bot jocondle;
    And, holly bowghes aboute, and al asydde
The brenning fyre, hem eten and hem drinke,
    And laughen mereli, and maken route;
And pype and dansen, and, hem rage; ne swinke [i.e., labour]
    Ne noc thynge els, twelve daye’ thei wolde not.”
            Lad. Cell., xlv. H. 1.

The oldest printed collection of Christmas Carols is that which was published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521, but the songs are of a festal character, including the famous “Boar's-head Carol,” which is still sung annually, on Christmas Day, at Queen’s College, Oxford.

“In the West of England,” says Mr. Sandys, “and especially in the western parts of Cornwall, carol-singing is still kept up, the singers going about from house to house, wherever they can obtain encouragement.” In the West of England also, until very lately, rejoicings of all kinds commenced on Christmas Eve. The day was passed in the ordinary manner; “but at seven or eight o’clock in the evening, cakes were drawn hot from the oven; cyder or beer exhilarated the spirits in every house; and the singing of carols was continued late into the night. On Christmas Day, these carols took the place of psalms in all the churches, especially at afternoon service, the whole congregation joining; and at the end, it was usual for the parish clerk to declare, in a loud voice, his wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy new year to all the parishioners.” (Preface to Christmas Carols, &c., by Davies Gilbert, 2nd edit., 1823.)

According to Wordsworth, the singing of carols also commenced in the North of England on Christmas Eve. In some lines addressed to his brother, the Rev. Dr. Wordsworth, he writes thus

“The minstrels played their Christmas tune,
Tonight beneath my cottage eaves
Keen was the air, but could not freeze,
Nor check the music of their strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand
And who but listen’d? till was paid
Respect to every inmate’s claim;   
The greeting given, the music played   
In honour of each household name,   
Duly pronounced with lusty call,   
And ‘merry Christmas’ wished to all! ...   
For pleasure hath not ceased to wait   
On these expected annual rounds,   
Whether the rich man’s sumptuous gate      
Call forth the unelaborate sounds,
Or they are offered at the door
That guards the lowliest of the poor.
How touching, when at midnight sweep
Snow-muffled winds, and all is dark,
To hear—and sink again to sleep !
Or, at an earlier call, to mark,
By blazing fire, the still suspense
Of self-complacent innocence.
The mutual nod—the grave disguise
Of hearts with, gladness brimming o'er;
And some unbidden tears that rise
For names once heard, and heard no more;
Tears brightened by the serenade
For infant in the cradle laid!
Hail, ancient manners! sure defence,
Where they survive, of wholesome laws,”

The singing of religious carols is also heard in some of the midland counties, and, even in the streets of London, boys go about on the morning of Christmas Day, singing and selling them. Hone gives a list of eighty-nine carols in use within the last few years, excluding the numerous compositions published by religious societies, under the name of carols. [See: Christmas Carols now annually Printed - William Hone]

The reader who seeks for information about carols, wassail songs, and other celebrations of Christmas, will find an ample fund of amusement and instruction in Christmas-tide, It's History, Festivities, and Carols, by W. Sandys, F. S. A., and some further collections towards the history of carol-singing in the preface to A little book of Christmas Carols, by Edward F. Rimbault, LL.D.

To Mr. Sandys’s Collection I am chiefly indebted. for the following traditional tunes to religious carols:—


The words of this carol are in the Roxburghe Collection (iii. 452), together with three other “choice Carols for Christmas Holidays,” for St. Stephen’s, St. John’s, and Innocents’ days. The tune was printed by Hone, in his Facetice, to a “political Christmas Carol,” beginning—

“ God rest you, merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember we were left alive 
Upon last Christmas Day,
With both our lips at liberty,
To praise Lord C[astlereag]h
For his ‘practical’ comfort and joy,”

I have seen no earlier copy of the tune than one in the handwriting of Dr. Nares, the cathedral composer, in which it is entitled “The old Christmas Carol;” but I have received many versions from different sources, for no carol seems to be more generally known.

In the Halliwell Collection of Broadsides, No. 263, Chetham Library, is “The overthrow of proud Holofernes, and the Triumph of virtuous Queen Judith; to the tune of Tidings of comfort and joy.” As those words form the burden of “God rest you, merry gentlemen,” the two are to the same air.

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.”

The carol is sometimes sung in a major key, and sometimes in a minor; besides which difference, scarcely any two copies agree in the second part.

Having printed Hone’s version, and one in a major key, in National English Airs, I now give a third copy, noted down by Dr. Rimbault. It has a repetition of words at the end which some others have not.

In Bethlehem, in Jewry, this blessed babe was born,
And laid within a manger, upon this blessed morn;
The which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.
    O tidings, &c.

From God, our Heavenly Father, a blessed Angel came,
And unto certain Shepherds brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born the Son of God by name.
    O tidings, &c.

Fear not, then said the Angel, let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan’s pow’r and might.
    O tidings, &c.

The Shepherds at those tidings rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a feeding, in tempest, storm, and wind,
And went to Bethlehem straightway, this blessed babe to find.
    O tidings, &c.

But when to Bethlehem they came, where our dear Saviour lay,
They found Him in a manger where oxen feed on hay;
His mother Mary, kneeling, unto the Lord did pray.
    O tidings, &c.

Now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface.
    O tidings, &c.


Another carol tune, to the same words, from Sandys’s Collection.


A Christmas Carol still sung in the West of England, taken from Mr. Sandys’s Collection. The tunes of this and other Carols are not exclusively appropriated to the words with which they are here united; various Carols are sung to each air.

In Bethlehem city, in Jewry it was,   
Where Joseph and Mary together did pass,
And there to be taxed, with many one mo,
For Caesar commanded the same should be mo'   
    Rejoice and be merry, &c.   

But, when they had entered the city so far,
The number of people so mighty was there,
That Joseph and Mary, whose substance was small
Could get in the city no lodging at all.
    Rejoice, &c.

Then they were constrain’d in a stable to lie,
Where oxen and asses they used to tie;
Their lodging so simple, they held it no scorn,
But against the next morning our Saviour was born.
    Rejoice, &c.

The King of all Glory to the world being brought,
Small store of fine linen to wrap him was wrought;
When Mary had swaddled her young Son so sweet,
Within an ox manger she laid him to sleep.    .
    Rejoice, &c.

Then God sent an Angel from heaven so high,
To certain poor Shepherds in fields where they lie, 
And bid them no longer in sorrow to stay, 
Because that our Saviour was born on this day. 
    Rejoice, &c.

Then presently after, the Shepherds did spy
A number of Angels appear in the sky,
Who joyfully talked, and sweetly did sing,
To God be all Glory, our Heavenly King.
    Rejoice, &c.

Three certain Wise Princes, they thought it most meet
To lay their rich off’rings at our Saviour's feet;
Then the Shepherds consent, and to Bethlehem did go,
And when they came thither, they found it was so.
    Rejoice, &c.


A Carol for the morning of Christmas Day; the tune from Mr. Sandys’ Collection.

They looked above, and there saw a star
That shone in the East, beyond them afar,
And which to the earth did give a great light,
And so it continued by day and by night.
    Nowell, &c.

And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from a country afar;
To seek for a King it was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
    Nowell, &c.

The star went before them unto the North-West,
At length over Bethlehem seemed to rest,
And there did remain by night and by day,
Right over the place where Jesus Christ lay.
    Nowell, &c.

The wise men did know then, assuredly,
The King whom they sought in that house must
So one enter’d in, time babe for to see, [be;
And found him surrounded by poverty.
    Nowell, &c.

Then entered in those wise men three,
Most reverently, with bended knee,
And offered there, in his presence,
Both gold and myrrh, with frankincense.
    Nowell, &c..

Between the stalls of an ox and ass,
This child there truly born he was;
For want of bed-clothing they did him lay
All in the manger, among the hay.
    Nowell, &c.

Then let us all, with one accord,
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
That made both heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind hath bought.
    Nowell, &c.

For if we, in our time, do well,
We shall be freed, in death, from hell;
And find, instead of Satan’s thrall,
A heavenly resting-place for all.
    Nowell, &c.


From Dr. Rimbault’s Little Book of Christmas Carols. This carol possesses historical interest, as being still sung annually, on Christmas Day, at Queen’s College, Oxford.

Solo.    The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the bravest dish in all the land
When thus bedeck’d with a gay garland,
    Let us servire cantico.
        Chorus. Caput apri, &c.

Solo.    Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
    In regimensi atrio.
    Chorus. Caput apri, &c.

The above are altered from the old words printed by Wynkin de Worde. In his day, every one was supposed to be able to sing. Mark the difference in the third line :—

“The bore’s heed in hande bring I,
With garlans gay and rosemary;
I pray you all synge merely
    Qui estis in convivio.   
        Caput apri defero   
        Reddens laudes Domino.

The bore’s heed I understande,
Is the chefe servyce in this lande;
Loke, where ever it be fande
    Servite cum cantico.
        Caput apri, &c.

Be gladde, lordes, bothe more and lasse,
To chere you all this Christmasse,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde,
The bore’s heed with mustarde.
        Caput apri, bc.”

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.