A Treasury of Christmas Carols


William Henry Husk

Librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society

Songs of the Nativity
Being Christmas Carols,
Ancient and Modern

London: John Camden Hotten, 1868,
reprinted by Norwood Editions, Norwood, PA, 1973


William Henry Husk
Librarian to the Sacred Harmonic Society


Christmas! ― What a multitude of associations crowd into the mind at the mere sight or mention of that word! In imagination we are transported to the stable in Bethlehem, and see the Virgin Mother clasping to her breast the Infant. Saviour, whilst closer and closer towards the cattle creeps she, in hopes of receiving warmth from their breaths; for, notwithstanding what geographers tell us of the perennial mildness of the climate of Judea, we cannot shake off the belief that

"It was the winter wild,
While the Heaven-born child,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies."

We behold the shepherds in the field, watching their flocks by night-we gaze upon the Angelic vision-we listen to the " good tidings of great joy," and are raised to ecstasy by the celestial chorus-the first Christmas carol, as Bishop Jeremy Taylor appropriately styled it, ― "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." Our thoughts turn next to the star-led Magi and their offerings to the Holy Child-a feeling of horror overcomes us as we think of the fearful outcry in Bethlehem, the moans of slaughtered Innocents, and the wailings of bereaved mothers weeping for their children, and refusing to be comforted because they were not, mingling with the savage exclamations of the ferocious soldiery, the instruments of the brutal Herod's cruelty;-but we breathe freely again when we consider that the bloodshed was in vain ;-that the tyrant's ends were frustrated, and the Holy Family safe in Egypt.

How many quaint and curious legendary notions-superstitions if you will, but harmless enough in themselves, and frequently of most poetic beauty,-obtained credence with our fore-fathers in connection with the holy time of celebrating the Nativity! It was believed in the western parts of Devonshire "that at twelve o'clock at night on Christmas Eve the oxen in their stalls were always found on their knees as in an attitude of devotion." Bees were believed to sing in their hives at the same time, and bread baked on Christmas Eve never turned mouldy. In an old print (at the head of a sheet of carols published in 1701) representing the stable at Bethlehem with the Holy Family, figures of an ox, a cow, a sheep, a raven, and a cock are introduced, having labels with Latin inscriptions in their mouths, which are thus explained:-" The cock croweth, Christus natus est (Christ is born); the raven asketh, Quanclo? (When?); the cow replieth, Hac nocte (This night); the ox crieth out, Ubi? ubi? (Where? where?); the sheep bleateth out, Bethlehem."

The crowing of the cock at the approach and break of day has supplied the groundwork of many an old-world fable. It was said that it was about the time of cock-crowing when our Saviour was born; and it was also about that time when He rose from the dead. The spirits of the departed were supposed to possess the power of revisiting the earth during the hours of darkness, but to be compelled to retire at cock-crow. This belief is thus expressed by the mighty master of the human heart, Shakspere

                                "I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and at his warning
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine."

And then, in a strain of the loftiest poetry, he proceeds to make us acquainted with a piece of folk-lore so singularly beautiful that we almost feel it difficult to refuse it our belief:-

"Some say, that ever `gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time."

Of the superstitions connected with, and the customs peculiar to, Christmas, a volume might easily be written. To attempt to describe them here would be in vain; we must therefore be content with a few passing notices of some of them, more particularly those which either have within our own time grown, or are fast growing, into disuse.

Concerning Christmas customs as existing in feudal times, we are fortunate in possessing a most graphic description from the pen of one whose admiration of the brighter side of the feudal system with its picturesque and striking features was very great. It embodies in a brief space so many of the customs of the times that, notwithstanding its familiarity, we cannot forbear again
quoting it

"Domestic and religious rite
Gave honour to the holy night.
On Christmas Eve the bells were rung;
On Christmas Eve the mass was sung;
That only night, in all the year,
Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear;
The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;
The hail was dressed with holly green;
Forth to the wood did merry men go,
To gather in the mistletoe,
Then opened wide the baron's hail
To vassal, tenant, serf, and all;
Power laid his rod of rule aside,
And ceremony doff'd his pride.
The heir, with roses in his shoes,
That night might village partner choose.
The lord, underogating, share
The vulgar game of "post and pair!'
All hailed with uncontroll'd delight
And general voice, the happy night
That to the cottage, as the crown,
Brought tidings of salvation down.
The fire with well dried logs supplied,
Went roaring up the chimney wide;
The huge hail table's oaken face,
Scrubb'd till it shone, the day to grace,
Bore then upon: its massive board
No mark to part the squire and lord.
Then was brought in the lusty brawn,
By old, blue-coated serving-man;
Then the grim boar's head frowned on high,
Crested with bays and rosemary.
Well can the green-garb'd ranger tell,
How, when, and where, the monster fell;
What dogs before his death he tore,
And all the baiting of the boar.
The wassail round in good brown bowls,
Garnished with ribbon, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reek'd: hard by
Plum porridge stood, and Christmas pie;
Nor failed old Scotland to produce
At such high tide her savoury goose.
Then came the merry masquers in,
And carols roar'd with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visor made
But oh! what masquers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!
England was merry England when
Old Christmas brought his sports again.
'Twas Christmas broached the mightiest ale,
'Twas Christmas told the merriest tale;
A Christmas gambol oft would cheer
A poor man's heart through half the year."

- Scott's Marmion.

[Note: For an interesting account, see: A Christmas Mumming, 1377. See notes under Christmas In The Olden Time - Walter Scott]

Whose heart has not bounded with delight on seeing a group of children, newly released from the trammels of the school, returning home to enjoy their Christmas holiday? Listen to the eagerness and the earnestness and glee with which the boys indulge in anticipations of the various pleasures to come; -- he plum-puddings to be made of unusual dimensions,-the new bats and balls or other toys,-the gaily coloured prints adorning the Christmas volumes, - the pantomimes they hope to see -- ay, the pantomimes! And here comes one of the Christmas customs which have in our own time flourished in their greatest vigour, and yet seem hastening to decay. Many of us remember the time-it is not so very far distant-when no London theatrical manager ever dreamed of opening his doors at Christmas without placing before his visitors "a new grand comic Christmas pantomime, which has been in preparation all the summer." And then the joy of the children as they witnessed the representation. Leigh Hunt., in one of his pleasant papers, says of holiday children :-" But oh, the rapture when the pantomime commences Beady to leap out of the box, they joy in the mischief of the clown, laugh at the thwacks he gets for his meddling, and feel no small portion of contempt for his ignorance in not knowing that hot water will scald and gunpowder explode; whilst with head aside to give fresh energy to the strokes, they ring their little palms against each other in testimony of exuberant delight." The clown is indeed the boys' prime source of enjoyment in a pantomime -- the little girls, as their "bringings-up" may have been in the open and honest, or in the straight-laced, school, differ in their estimation of the clown as being very comical, or as dreadfully vulgar, and they either smile or look grave accordingly-but the boys never mince the matter; they give unrestrained utterance to their gratification. The late Alfred Bunn, in his entertaining work on the Stage, expresses well the feelings which the remembrance of such boyish enjoyments awakes in later life, "Our recollections of, and associations with, Christmas," says he, "and consequently, of and with Grimaldi, are amongst the earliest and happiest of our thoughts. We can never forget our burst of enjoyment on catching the first accents of that many-toned voice, and the first glimpse of that party-coloured face, when, year after year, we have squeezed into any part of the theatre his attraction had left standing room in. Has there been any social happiness of after days the memory of which can impart such true delight, as a recurrence to those green and bright hours of life's unclouded boyhood?" All living who can remember the London theatres during the first twenty years or so of the present century agree in bearing testimony to the wonderful powers of Grimaldi as Clown. Those who recollect him are reluctant to admit that any of his successors had any merit; but we cannot refuse our meet of approbation to the talents of Paulo, Tom Matthews, and Flexmore, each in his way an artist. It would be unfair too to pass over the name of the greatest of living clowns, Charles Leclerque, whose dry, quaint humour, and "mute eloquence" are in our opinion unrivalled. But, great as are his abilities, he has latterly had but small chance of displaying them, seeing that at the theatre to which he has been principally attached pantomime has lately been made, as at the majority of our theatres, to give way to that species of extravaganza, miscalled burlesque, in which wit and humour are dispensed with, and the greatest ambition of the author appears to be to display his skill in the distortion in every possible manner of the English vocabulary, and the manufactory of some such funny saying as that" a Christmas carol will make old Care howl." Let us, however, yet hope that the reign of such dull and senseless absurdities is nearly at an end, and that the taste for the good old-fashioned laughter-provoking pantomime will soon revive, for we cannot believe that it is really defunct. There are still some managers who cling to pantomime, and their crowded houses for weeks after Christmas are sufficient to show that a large portion of the public still prefers the old Christmas fare. Long may their houses continue crowded; and. let those who can enjoy the artless, unrestrained mirth of children, attend a morning performance of a pantomime ― one of the happiest of modern theatrical ideas ― and listen to the joyous, ringing laughter of the merry urchins who on such occasions form the vast majority of the auditory.

Another Christmas custom fast approaching to extinction is that of giving Christmas-boxes. Formerly nearly every person who had, or was supposed to have, rendered services to another during the year, looked for a gratuity at Christmas, and in many cases it was regarded almost as a right. Domestic servants in this way levied contributions on the tradesmen who supplied their masters; bankers' clerks received donations from the customers ; the clerks and managers of retail traders expected presents from the wholesale dealers, and some even went so far as to convey more than a gentle hint when the proffered gift was of less value than what they conceived themselves "entitled to." Every householder was duly waited on by the postmen (general and twopenny -- as the local postmen were called, from the rate of postage charged for the conveyance of letters from one part of the town to another, ere the universal penny post system was established) ; the lamplighter, the waits, the thin cock, the parish beadle, the dustman, the parish watchman (prior to the introduction of the present system of police.), and others. A practice existed of tallow-chandlers distributing to the children of their customers, on their applying for them, tiny coloured candles in miniature candlesticks made of bright tin, and it was an amusing sight, as you passed a tallow-chandler's shop on "Boxing day," to see the crowd of eager urchins, many of whom, like some of their elders, were ready enough to prefer claims having no just foundation, besieging the door, and only prevented from making a forcible entry, en masse, into the shop, by the presence of a shopman armed with a long whip. The contentions for precedence, the struggles to get nearest the door, the envious looks with which some fortunate recipient of the coveted gift was regarded by his unsuccessful rivals, and other incidents proving the truth of the saying that "the boy is father to the man" were perhaps as instructive as amusing. "A heavy blow and great discouragement" to the custom of Christmas-boxing amongst trades -- men has been given by the growing practice of keeping the shops closed on Boxing-day. Amongst the few persons who still adhere to the old custom are the postmen; and on no one is the gratuity more readily and cheerfully bestowed than on these most useful, hardworked, and underpaid public servants. The dustmen still in many places ask the accustomed benevolence in a most original style. As Christmas draws nigh they distribute a hand-bill preferring their petition. Here is a copy of one of the last year circulated in one of the wealthiest metropolitan parishes: --

To the Worthy Inhabitants of St. George's, Westminster.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, -- We, the regular DUSTMEN of this Parish, in the employ of John Baldwin & Co. make humble application to you for a CHRISTMAS Box, which you are usually so kind in giving. We bring our token, which consists of a handsome and antique Silver Medal, commemorating the peace of Lunevile, when the combined forces fought against the great Napoleon in Belgium. The figures represent `Peace,' with her olive branch and horn of plenty, leading `Industry,' who is seated on her car, drawn by two lions; the inscription is-' Stets Leite sic Friede,' signifying-Lead her always in Peace. Dated - Luneville, D. 9 Februar, 1801. On the reverse side is the figure of a man half reclining, as though awoke from slumber, holding a reed in one hand, the other extended appealingly to the heavens; inscription -- 'Wann tagts auch hier,' signifying -- When breaks the daylight here. At the bottom is the name Abramson. No connexion with Scavengers.

"Christopher Major          James Oliver

"Caution.-- There being persons who go about with the intent to defraud us, and impose on you, be so kind as not to give your bounty to any person who cannot produce a Medal as above. Please not to return this bill."

One is puzzled which to admire most in this production; ― the elaborate description of the "antique" medal, (which, we suppose, must be in some way or another, although perhaps remotely, connected with the dustman's vocation, although our limited capacity does not permit us to perceive it), or the simplicity and candour which shows us that the offence of "defrauding us" is in the writer's mind a graver one than that of "imposing on you."

Another functionary, who still expects his " Christmas-box," is the Parish-beadle, who, in the exercise of his duty, has to distribute amongst the inhabitants about Christmastide a broad sheet containing a list of the parish officers for the year, with other information, and who at the same time leaves on his own account another broadside containing "A copy of Verses for 18 -- ! humbly presented to all my worthy Masters and Mistresses in the Parish of St. -----, -----, by -----, Beadle and Bellman." This sheet is surrounded by woodcuts; that at the top representing the "Beadle and Bellman" accompanied by watchmen or others, and the remainder generally representing various incidents in the life of our Saviour. The verses are usually on the Nativity, and other festivals occurring at Christmastide; addresses "to my Masters and Mistresses," "the Young Men," "the Young Maidens," and the like, with, occasionally, one on some unusual occurrence within the expiring year. The following lines which a newly-appointed Beadle thought fit [in 1834] to insert in memory of his predecessor afford a fair sample of the "poetry" of these worthies : ―


"Since our good friend is gone to rest
Within the silent grave;
We hope his soul is `mongst the blest,-
Let fruitless sorrows waive."

The custom of distributing these verses is a very old one, and one printing office, -- that of Messrs. Reynell, formerly of Piccadilly, and now of Little Pulteney-street -- has continuously enjoyed the distinction of printing for many of the London beadles since the year 1735. Why the metropolitan "Bumbles" are so constant in their patronage of this establishment we know not. Can it be that they find a poet as well as a typographer on the premises?

The custom of the company assembled to celebrate Twelfth-night supporting assumed characters seems, judging from the absence from the pastrycooks' windows of the sheets on which the coloured representations of such characters were printed, to have passed away. The selection, by lot, of a king and queen to preside over the Twelfth-night festivities is very ancient, and the addition of other characters generally representing the courtiers, though not infrequently others, and often the chief personages of some popular comedy, dates back at least two centuries. The names of these characters were written on slips of paper which were put into the cake. In 1669 this practice was abandoned, and the names were drawn from a hat. Towards the latter end of the last century pictorial representations of the characters were introduced. These were of the invention of John Britton, the topographer and antiquary, and some of the earliest of them were drawn and engraved by the elder Cruikshank. It is not unlikely that the latter's son, the admirable artist, George Cruikshank, still amongst us, may have witnessed, during his long life, the rise, general prevalence, gradual decay, and perhaps total extinction of the custom of using these character-pictures.

What school-boy of the present day knows anything of Christmas-Pieces? We mean not pantomimes, extravaganzas, or any other species of theatrical entertainment, but specimens of handwriting which were carefully prepared under the superintendence of the writing-master, in all schools immediately before the breaking-up for the Christmas vacation, in order to manifest to the "parents and guardians" the improvement made during the year by the pupils in the caligraphic art. These "pieces" were on large sheets of writing paper of the size known as "imperial," spread open. They were bordered by engravings, the space in the centre being reserved for the writing. A very extensive collection of "pieces," comprising an almost unbroken series from the year 1720 until about 1840, lies before the writer at the time of writing. The engravings, which in. the earlier pieces are of considerable merit, but which became by degrees poorer and poorer, consist of representations of some important event which had happened during the year, such as battles by land or sea, the earthquake at Lisbon, the coronation of George III, and the like; or scenes illustrating "Rural sports," "Summer diversions," "Bartholomew fair," Military exercises, &c. Scripture subjects were sometimes (although by no means frequently) introduced. About 1805 the practice of colouring the engravings commenced and slowly gained ground until about 1820, when it became universal. From about the latter date, too, the engravings were almost exclusively confined to Scripture subjects. From the period of the introduction of colour the engravings rapidly deteriorated, passing from a respectable kind of copper-plate, through various phases of outlines, serving merely as a guide to the colourist, until they terminated in wood-cuts of the coarsest and commonest description. For many years prior to their ceasing to be published, the use of these Christmas pieces had been discontinued in respectable schools on account of an objectionable practice which prevailed of the boys in the parochial schools and lower class of private schools going about from house to house exhibiting their pieces as a means of obtaining "Christmas-boxes." Formerly the writing of "pieces" was not confined to Christmas, but was also used in some schools at Whitsuntide.

We have yet to speak of one other departing Christmas custom-that of singing Carols. Although once so universally prevalent throughout the entire length and breadth of the land as to warrant the assumption that it was permanently rooted in the habits of the people, this interesting custom has been for a long time on the wane. Fifty years ago carols were beginning "to be spoken of as not belonging to this century;" ― thirty years back they were said to be "still sung during the festive season in many parts of the country, though now seldom heard in the metropolis." This latter is perhaps to some extent still the case. Generally speaking, however, it may be said that the printers of sheet carols resident in London, who formerly supplied a considerable number of country dealers, now issue but few carols at Christmas-tide; and the country printers, although the sheets published by them as collections of carols contain a much larger number of pieces than those put forth by their metropolitan brethren, find the taste of their customers rather incline towards hymns, mostly those in use amongst dissenting congregations, than to the genuine Christmas carol, and they suit them accordingly. Such carols as are still printed by these popular typographers and publishers are mentioned in the notes on the following collection. The old festive carol seems to have grown into almost total neglect. A certain section of the clergy, anxious for the conservation of old customs, particularly of those associated with the great Church festivals, have occasionally, during the last twenty or thirty years, made attempts to revive a taste for the use of Christmas carols amongst their parishioners. But their efforts have been too intermittent and spasmodic to produce any successful result, and they seem also to have forgotten that no custom can be either established, sustained, or revived by the mere desire of persons in authority. Unless the free spontaneous wish of the people shall concur to give it vitality, it will soon droop and die. The practice of carol-singing, however, may yet revive. Many amongst us remember, there than forty years since, a popular song, entitled, "The Good old days of Adam and Eve," in which the singer recalled to memory many things then passed away, amongst them the time

"When Christmas had its Christmas carols,
And ladies' sides were hooped like barrels."

As we have seen the latter custom return and maintain itself for several years, we may also live to see the former resume all its pristine vigour.

Perhaps the greatest characteristic of Christmas Day at present is the very general custom of regarding it as a domestic and family festival. The thoughts of men seem to turn on that day more especially towards home and kindred, and members of families who have during the rest of the year been scattered assemble together at the table of the head of the family. Children, joyous children, fresh from school, form a part, by no means the least interesting, of the happy circle, which is perhaps completed by the addition of some old and valued friend, it may be the school companion of the host or hostess. Although many of the old sports and pastimes, once inseparable from such a Christmas party, may be no longer resorted to, nor many of the old Christmas customs observed, yet there is no lack of cheerfulness and even merriment; and one of the chief sources of amusement is the telling, hearing, or reading of the Christmas manners, habits, and customs of bygone times.

It is hoped, therefore, that it may not be deemed presumptuous to suppose that the present volume will be not unwelcome to such a circle of readers and listeners.

It has been compiled -- not for the purpose of forming a complete and exhaustive collection of Christmas carols; for that would not only have swollen it to unwieldy dimensions, but have necessitated the introduction of numerous pieces of very inferior character, but -- in order, by placing before the reader a selection of all the choicest productions of the kind, both ancient and modern, to show what Christmas carols were and are. The materials for it have been drawn from the most extensive and varied sources; ancient manuscripts, early printed books, rare musical works, old almanacs, and, in no small degree, the common broad-sides, those remarkable productions of the cheap printing press, which have been the means of preserving to us no inconsiderable number of the pieces still extant in this particular walk of literature.

The carols here given were produced at various times extending over a period of nearly five hundred years. Care has been taken in selecting them to observe impartiality between the old and the new; -- the productions of the remote past, and those of times nearer to our own, -- so that the book shall present a fair specimen of both without exhibiting an undue preference for either. Many of the pieces, and some of them not the least in point of literary merit, are introduced into a collection of carols for the first time; others, which have already appeared in collections, have been collated with, and corrected by, the original or other early printed copies. The spelling of the older carols has been modernised, but no other material alteration made. The carols are arranged under two heads, Religious Carols, including all those of a legendary character, as well as those relating to Scripturally recorded events, and Festive Carols and Songs, comprising productions of a more secular kind.

In conclusion, the Editor ventures to express a hope that the volume may find favour in the sight of his fellow-countrymen and country-women, and contribute in some degree to their enjoyment of "A Merrie Christmas."


Editor's Note:
These notes appear exactly as they first appeared in the 1868 edition.
They have not been changed in spelling or usage.


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