The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Some Ancient Christmas Carols

Davies Gilbert

The First Edition

Printed By John Nichols And Son

Table Of Contents

The following Carols or Christmas Songs were chanted to the Tunes accompanying them, in Churches on Christmas Day, and in private houses on Christmas Eve, throughout the West of England, up to the latter part of the late century.

The Editor is desirous of preserving them in their actual forms, however distorted by false grammar or by obscurities, as specimens of times now passed away, and of religious feelings superseded by others of a different cast. He is anxious also to preserve them on account, of the delight they afforded him in his childhood, when the festivities of Christmas Eve were anticipated by many days of preparation, and prolonged through several weeks by repetitions and remembrances.

Christmas Day, like every other great festival, has prefixed to it in the Calendar a Vigil or Fast; and in Catholic countries Mass is still celebrated at midnight after Christmas Eve, when austerities cease, and rejoicings of all kinds succeed. Shadows of these customs were, till very lately, preserved in the Protestant West of England. The day of Christmas Eve was passed in an 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.

None of the sports or gambols, so frequently practised on subsequent days, ever mixed themselves with the religious observances of Christmas Eve. Two of the sports most used in Cornwall were, the one, a metrical play, exhibiting the successful prowess of St. George exerted against a Mahometan adversary; the other a less dignified representation of some transactions at a market or fair.

In the first, St. George enters accoutred with complete armour, and exclaims,

“Here come I Saint George,
    That valiant Champion bold,
And with my sword and spear
    I‘ve won three crowns of gold.

“I slew the Dragon he,
    And brought him to the slaughter,
By which I gained fair Sabra,
    The King of Egypt’s daughter.”

The Pagan enters.
    “Here come I the Turkish Knight,
    Come from the Turkish land to fight,
    * * * * * * * * * * *
      * * * * * * * bold,
And if your blood is hot,
    I soon will make it cold.”

They fight, the Turkish Knight falls, and rising on one knee,

    “Oh! pardon me, Saint George,
        Oh! pardon me, I crave,
    Oh! give me but my life,
        And I will be thy slave.”

    Saint George, however, again strikes him down; but, immediately relenting, calls out,

    “Is there no Doctor to be found,
    To cure a deep and deadly wound ?“

A Doctor enters, declaring that he has a small phial filled with the juice of some particular plant, capable of recalling any one to life; he tries, however, and fails: when Saint George kills him, enraged by his want of success. Soon after this, the Turkish Knight appears perfectly well; and having been fully convinced of his errors by the strength of Saint George’s arm, he becomes a Christian, and the scene closes.

The Fair or Market usually followed, as a Farce. Several persons, arranged on benches, were sometimes supposed to sell corn; and one applying to each seller in his turn enquired the price, using a set form of words, to be answered in a corresponding manner. If any error were committed, a grave personage was introduced with much ceremony, grotesquely attired, and provided with a large stick, who, after stipulating for some ludicrous reward, such as a gallon of moon-light, proceeded to shoe the untamed colt, by striking the person in error on the sole of the foot.

For an ample account of various customs and ceremonies practised at Christmas in former periods, the Reader is referred to Brand’s “Observations on Popular Antiquities,” edited by Henry Ellis, F.R.S. and Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries, two vols. 4to; and to the “Clavis Calendaria, by John Brady,” two vols. 8vo. In each of these works will be found a very curious dissertation on the word yule, the name of a Pagan festival, which has passed into most European languages, to denominate Christmas. The French noel is obviously derived from this word, and appears corrupted into “Now Well,” when it forms a part of the Chorus in the fourth Carol [When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was1]; and perhaps indicates the whole to be a translation.

Tredrea, 1822.

Note from Mr. Gilbert:

1. See also Carols IX [The First Nowel That The Angel Did Say]. and XIV [Zacharias Being An Aged Man]. Return


First Edition - Postscript by Mr. Gilbert

Since the preceding page was printed, a friend has pointed out to me what is said under the word Nouel or Noel in “Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Françoise, par M. Menage.”

“Le Mot de Nouel étoit autrefois Un mot de rejouissance; on le erioit dans toutes les fêtes et solennités publiques.

“Martial de Paris, à l’entrée du Roy Charles VII. dans Verneuil:
    “Ce jour vint le Roy à Verneuil,
    Où ii fut receu à grand joye
    Du peuple joyeux à merveil,
    En criant Noel par la voye.”


Advertisement To The Second Edition.

The small collection of Christmas Carols, printed last year, having attracted much more of public attention than the Editor could have flattered himself with their being likely to obtain, and a Second Edition being called for, he has procured several other Carols from the same part of England; including one appropriate to each of the three holidays immediately following Christmas Day: but he has not succeeded in his best endeavours to get more of the ancient Tunes.

After the time for religious Carolling had passed away, and more secular festivities came to assume their turn, Ballads constituted a main article in the catalogue of amusements resorted to by our ancestors: of these the Editor has partially recollected two, bearing strong marks of antiquity. They have ceased, for many years, either to be recited or sung, yet the notes are fortunately preserved; and, if one of them is known in the Northern part of the Island, it may have suggested a much more finished composition for the Lay of the Last Minstrel.

A Dance is added, which used to be performed, not only at Christmas but on all other festive occasions; and it is said to have continued in fashion, however strange such a fashion may appear, to about the time of the Revolution.

Also a Dialogue between the Husband-man and the Serving-man, a great favourite at country merry-makings, on account of the preference given to rural employments. [see: The Servingman and the Husbandman]

And, finally, the Airs of two Songs: one, The King Shall Enjoy His Own Again, the delight of all those, who, for the greater part of a century, were attached to what was then termed “The good old Cause.” The other [The Helston Forey] esteemed by several competent judges to be a specimen of Celtic Music.

Tredrea, 1823.

Editor's Note:

The reference of "Lay of the Last Minstrel" is to Sir Walter Scott's "The Lay of the Last Minstrel: With Ballads, Songs, and Miscellaneous Poems" (New York: C.S. Francis & Co., 1843, rev. 1845).

The original poem was started in 1802; it was finished in August 1804 and published on January 12, 1805. For background concerning The Lay, see "Lay of the Last Minstrel."

This book has been scanned and is available at Google Books, "The Lay of the Last Minstrel: With Ballads, Songs, and Miscellaneous Poems."

The full poem can be seen at the Poet's Corner: "The Lay of the Last Minstrel."

Finally, I came across an interesting review of the 1822 volume in The British Critic: A New Review. Vol. 20. (London: F. and C. Rivington, 1823), pp. 304-310. It began:

Our readers will probably feel the same curiosity respecting this little publication which was excited in our own minds when its appearance was announced. We cannot pretend to say that the appetite has been completely gratified; for we expected a larger and more valuable collection than that with which Mr. Davies Gilbert has furnished us. But he is entitled to our thanks even for the present scanty list; and this example may probably induce the inhabitants of other parts of the island, skilled in antiquarian and religious lore, to do for their respective neighbourhoods what Mr. Gilbert has done for the West; and such publications will have their admirers in every circle.

This review was right on target. The work of Gilbert, and a decade later William Sandys, helped to spur researches into the carols sung in particular counties, towns and villages, most often from the older members of the community. These investigations continued for over a century, and unearthed many carols that would have been otherwise lost, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in other countries as well.

The critic had one comment that caused me to pause:

The whole of our Author's Preface and Postscript are curious; and so is the poetry which we are about to transcribe. They lead to serious reflections upon the altered state of a peasantry which once was contented and ignorant; but is now partaking largely of the tree of knowledge; and tasting both its sweet and bitter fruits.

I had never imagined such an observation, which is, of course, quite correct. For me, the comment was a somewhat wistful note of regret. I don't believe that that ignorance really is bliss, but there is a truth about not knowing some of the seedier, ignorant, violent parts of life, especially if one has come to that time in life when the ability to change such behavior has been sharply curtailed.

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