A Treasury of Christmas Carols


The Victorian Christmas Revival

Part 1. Christmas In Literature

Victoria.JPG (106249 bytes)When Victoria was born in 1819, it is said that carols were only sung in a few isolated communities in rural England. Oliver Goldsmith (1731-1774) wrote that the parishioners of The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) "kept up the Christmas carol." A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine for May, 1811, wrote that in the area known as North Riding in Yorkshire, he was awakened about 6 o’clock on Christmas Day "by a sweet singing under my window," and looking out he saw six young women and four men singing.

Washington Irving Portrait 2.jpg (3128809 bytes)Washington Irving (shown left) wrote in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., (1818-1819) -- and primarily from the section known as Old Christmas -- that he was surprised on Christmas night to hear beautiful music from local citizens. He wrote:

"Even the sound of the waits1, 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."2

In the "Christmas Eve" sketch, Irving continued:

"I had scarcely got into bed 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.

"I drew aside the curtains, to hear them more distinctly. The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement, partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. 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 sank upon the pillow and I fell asleep."

And in the sketch "Christmas Day," Irving wrote:

"When I awoke the next morning, it seemed as if all the events of the preceding evening had been a dream, and nothing but the identity of the ancient chamber convinced me of their reality. 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 burden3 of which was:

"Rejoice, our Saviour he was born

On Christmas Day in the morning."

"I rose softly, slipped on my clothes, opened the door suddenly, and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs. They were going the rounds of the house, and singing at every chamber-door…"4

In the early nineteenth century, Christmas was seeing a major resurgence, spurred by the popularity of

Charles_Dickens.JPG (94617 bytes)Charles Dickens

Dickens, in particular, helped to bridge the gap between the romantic past (as partially painted by the American, Washington Irving), and the bleak reality of the present. In pre-industrial England, the Squire and the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 26 through January 6)8 were a reality for many. But as they came to the industrial cities in search of a better life, the old traditions died, and there was nothing to replace them. Eric Routley wrote:

It was not so much the puritan way of life or the puritan religion as that urbanization, that elevation of commercial values which began to take place in those ages, and of which puritanism was only one (and a partly unintended) cause, that nearly killed the carol.9

In A Christmas Carol, however, Dickens showed city-dwellers a new way to celebrate the Christmas holiday. It was not the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany. Rather, it was the single day, Christmas Day, spend with family and a few close friends -- the extended family. And for many, there wasn't even that! Here then was a redefinition of the way in which Christmas could be imbued with meaning, beyond the traditions of the country squire.10

When critics allege that Christmas was "reinvented" by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, they are correct. The country squire of "Bracebridge Hall" simply no longer existed. The secular celebration of Christmas has to be "reinvented" in order survive.

This is not to say, of course, that the Victorians, or people today, could not adapt the traditions of the 12 Days of Christmas -- December 25 through January 5 -- to their current situation. A lengthy article by Elsa Chaney shows how to "reinvent" a family's Christmas at any time.


1. Washington would have heard the waits towards the end of their existence. See page 5 above (and note) for details concerning the waits. As the waits disappeared from the English scene, an option became the "carol services." One of the first was in 1878 when the cathedral choir in the newly created diocese of Truro, England, switched from its usual practice of caroling around the city on Christmas Eve to holding a service in church at 10pm. It included two lessons, prayers and a sermon interspersed with carols. Two years later the service was expanded to a festival of nine lessons and carols, providing a model that was taken up in 1918 at King's College, Cambridge and subsequently by many parish churches and cathedrals. For more information about Carol Services and the Festival Of Nine Lessons and Carols, see Carol ServicesReturn

2. From "Christmas" by Washington Irving, The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820). A number of sources have charged that Irving had never seen a holiday celebration such as was depicted in Sketch Book. See Nissenbaum, page 58 and "The Real Story of Christmas," The History Channel. In 1815, Washington Irving made his second trip to Europe, expecting to be absent for only a few months (although he remained abroad seventeen years). He first stayed with his sister Sarah and her husband in Birmingham, England. According to the curators of nearby Aston Hall, Irving stayed at the Hall and used the Hall as his inspiration for "Bracebridge Hall." Coincidentally, Mary, the daughter of the last owners, was married to Abraham Bracebridge; the couple lived at Aston Hall before James Watt, Jr., leased the Hall in 1818. There is also a Bracebridge Pool in nearby Sutton Park.

Irving’s notebook of 1818 included details about Aston Hall which are also found in Sketchbook, including that the hall was found at the gateway to a park, that the porter’s lodge was sheltered under trees, of a church spire rising, and of an old oak gallery. See Birmingham Assist, Irving and Aston Hall quoting Stanley T. Williams, The Life of Washington Irving, 1935. In addition to his stays in Birmingham, Irving also toured other parts of England, Wales, and the Highlands of Scotland during this time. See Evert A. Duyckinck, Cyclopaedia of American Literature, (New York: C. Scribner, 1856), quoted at University of Virginia Library Web site.

Van Wyck Brooks, in The World of Washington Irving (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1944) states unequivocally that Irving stayed in an old manor-house "...during the holiday season, when the old Christmas ceremonies were still kept up, the Yule log, the wassail bowl, the boar's head crowned with rosemary, the waits, the morris dances, the carols and the mummers, and the sword-dance handed down from the time of the Romans." However, Brooks cites neither a date nor a specific location. Return

3. Refrain or chorus of a song. Return

4. The charge of literary anachronism has been charged against some of the Christmas scenes depicted in The Sketch-Book . The author responded:

"At the time of the first publication of this paper, [The Christmas Dinner, in The Sketch-Book,] the picture of an old-fashioned Christmas in the country was pronounced by some as out of date. The author had afterwards an opportunity of witnessing almost all the customs above described, existing in unexpected vigour in the skirts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire, where he passed the Christmas holidays. The reader will find some account of them in the author's account of his sojourn in Newstead Abbey."--Note to revised edit. of The Sketch-Book, New York, 1848, p. 298.

Irving gave the following account from Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey:

During my recent Christmas sojourn at Barlboro' Hall, on the skirts of Derbyshire and Yorkshire, I had witnessed many of the rustic festivities peculiar to that joyous season, which have rashly been pronounced obsolete, by those who draw their experience merely from city life. I had seen the great Yule log put on the fire on Christmas Eve, and the wassail bowl sent round, brimming with its spicy beverage. I had heard carols beneath my window by the choristers of the neighboring village, who went their rounds about the ancient Hall at midnight, according to immemorial custom. We had mummers and mimers too, with the story of St. George and the Dragon, and other ballads and traditional dialogues, together with the famous old interlude of the Hobby Horse, all represented in the antechamber and servants' hall by rustics, who inherited the custom and the poetry from preceding generations. The boar's head, crowned with rosemary, had taken its honored station among the Christmas cheer; the festal board had been attended by glee singers and minstrels from the village to entertain the company with hereditary songs and catches during their repast; and the old Pyrrhic game of the sword dance, handed down since the time of the Romans, was admirably performed in the court-yard of the mansion by a band of young men, lithe and supple in their forms and graceful in their movements, who, I was told, went the rounds of the villages and country-seats during the Christmas holidays.

I specify these rural pageants and ceremonials, which I saw during my sojourn in this neighborhood, because it has been deemed that some of the anecdotes of holiday customs given in my preceding writings, related to usages which have entirely passed away. Critics who reside in cities have little idea of the primitive manners and observances, which still prevail in remote and rural neighborhoods.

Mr. Irving's comments were fully endorsed by an eminent English authority:

"The accuracy of his pictures of old English customs and sports, which he represents as flourishing under the influence of the benevolent squire, has been questioned, we know, by suburban readers: in our opinion, and according to our experience, there is nothing too highly coloured in them. [The writer then proceeds to prove his position.] We think, therefore, that, far from exceeding the limits of probability in this respect, Mr. Irving has hardly made the full use of northern customs which was really open to him. Nor can we see any thing overdrawn in the characters themselves."--Lon. Quar. Rev. xxxi. 476, 477, March, 1825.

The Dublin University Magazine, May 1835, page 554, remarked, in the same vein: "Bracebridge Hall is the only account we have which gives any thing like a true picture of the life of an English country gentleman of our own day." Source: Samuel Austin Allibone, A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1900), reproduced by the University of Virginia Library, Early American Fiction.  Return

5. Notably for his description of the celebration of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. Return

6. Moore's poem quickly became a phenomenon after it appeared, anonymously, on Page 2 of the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. The newspaper reprinted it each Christmas for several years, and in about 1830 began printing it as an illustrated broadside, handed out by carriers delivering the Christmas edition. Roger McBain, "Twas the Poem Before Christmas."  Return

7. The Christmas carol of A Christmas Carol was "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen." William Sandys wrote "In the metropolis a solitary itinerant may be occasionally heard in the streets croaking out ‘God rest you merry gentlemen,’; or some other old carol, to an ancient and simple tune." The offender in this case was a young singer who fled in terror when Scrooge took up a ruler with "energy of action." A Christmas Carol (published December 19, 1843) was the first of five Christmas novellas; it was followed by The Chimes (1844), The Cricket On The Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargin (1847). All five were published in 1852 as Christmas Books. A Project Gutenberg e-text of Christmas stories titled Some Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens contains the following: "A Christmas Tree," "What Christmas is as we Grow Older," "The Poor Relation's Story," "The Child's Story," "The Schoolboy's Story," and "Nobody's Story." The e-text was prepared by David Price from the 1911 Chapman and Hall Christmas Stories (Volume 1). For a look at historical England in the time of Dickens, see Appendix D, English Society in the 1840s. Return

8. See: Come Follow, Follow Me. But for some, the Christmastide lasted a good deal longer. If you were really fortunate, the Christmas season extended from the first Sunday of Advent in late November or early December through Candlemas on the 2nd of February! Return

9. See Eric Routley, The University Carol Book (Brighton: H. Freeman & Co., 1961), Introduction, page vi. See also: Christmas - C. C. Cox (1857) which speaks of many traditions, in the past tense. Return

10. For more information about Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol, see Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol, a site that features information and activities relating to A Christmas Carol. Visitors can learn about the story, send holiday cards, play games and even ask Scrooge a yes or no question. Return

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Douglas D. Anderson

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