The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

English Folk Carols

Cecil J. Sharp
London: Novello & Co., Ltd., 1911

Table of Contents

1. King Herod and the Cock (Worcestershire)

2. The Bitter Withy (Gloucestershire)

3. The Cherry Tree - Version 1 (Gloucestershire)

4. The Cherry Tree - Version 2 (Worcestershire)

5. The Moon Shines Bright (Warwickshire)

6. God Bless You, Merry Gentlemen (Cambridgeshire)

7. The Holly and the Ivy (Gloucestershire)

8. The Sinner's Redemption (Warwickshire) (First line: "All you that are unto mirth inclined")

9. Come All You True Good Christians (Gloucestershire)

10. On Christmas Night (Gloucestershire)

11. Come All You Worthy Gentlemen (Somerset)

12. As I Sat On A Sunny Bank, First Version (Gloucestershire)

13. As I Sat On A Sunny Bank, Second Version (Worcestershire)

13b. As I Sat By My Old Cottage Door (Alternative lyrics to #13; the Third Version)

14. The Ten Joys Of Mary (Somerset)

15. A Virgin Unspotted (Gloucestershire)

16. Sons of Levi (Kent)

17. The Little Room (Shropshire)

18. The Truth Sent From Above (Shropshire)

19. The Twelve Apostles (Shropshire)

20. New Year's Carol (Shropshire)

21. Wassail Song (Gloucestershire)


The Editor wishes to think, first of all, those singers, many of them of great age, who, in allowing him to note down their songs, have provided him with the material for this volume; their names are recorded in the Notes. And, secondly, he would thank the many kind friends who in various ways have aided him in his investigations, making special mention of Mrs. Stanton, Miss K. Sorby, Miss Eliza Wedgwood and Mr. Robin Hammond.


The term "Carol" is not an easy one to define. The Rev. H. R. Bramley's definition ― a kind of popular song appropriated to some special season of the ecclesiastical or natural year ― is, perhaps, the best that has been devised; it is, at any rate, wide enough to embrace all the songs in the collection. Formerly there existed carols associated with Easter (e.g., "The Moon shines bright") and other festivals of the Church's year; but the carol of the present day is almost invariably connected with the season of Christmas.

Unhappily, like many another ancient traditional custom, that of Christmas carol singing by parties of men and women in the village streets is gradually disappearing. At one time, and not so very long ago, the number of carols that were sung in this way in different parts of England must have been very large, to judge by the carol broadsheets and chap-books that have been preserved. Hone, too, in his Ancient Mysteries Described (pp. 97-9), quotes the first lines of no less than eighty-nine carols, all of which, he says, were then, i.e., 1822, being annually printed. Several of the carols in Hone's list are included in this collection, viz. ― Nos. 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 18, and 19; perhaps 2 and 21. Probably all, or very nearly all of the words of the carols mentioned by Hone might still be traced; of the tunes, however, to which they were traditionally sung, many, it is feared, have been irretrievably lost. This is not surprising, when it is realized how intimately the Christmas carol is associated in the minds of folk-singers with the custom of house-to-house singing, already referred to. Only a few weeks ago I asked two old men who were singing to me whether they knew a certain carol. One of them said that he did; the other, the elder of the two, shook his doubtfully. Whereupon the younger singer stood up and, dragging his companion up beside him, said encouragingly: "Stand up, and think you've got snow in your boots, and it'll come to you all right." And it did!

In several parts of England I have found carols which are peculiar to certain villages, by the inhabitants of which they are regarded as private possessions of great value, to be jealously guarded and retained for their own use. These are not traditional or folk-carols but the elementary compositions of simple musicians, very possibly of those who in the old days were members of the Church bands. They are easily distinguished from the popular carol by the formal nature of the music and words, and also by the fact that many of them are written in parts. Some of thee compositions are by no means without merit. The melodies, if not inspired, are usually strong and sincere, and, plainly, the expression of genuine feeling. The following example, which may be taken as fairly representative of the type, was noted at Armscote, a small hamlet in Worcestershire.

1. Come, let us sing our sweetest voice,
And choose our tune most dear.
Gladly we welcome Christmas Day
The happiest of the year.
The happiest of the year.

2. Deck every hearth with holly green,
Let not a care intrude,
But Christian love and joy be seen
And heartfelt gratitude.
And heartfelt gratitude.

3. For sad indeed has been our case,
Most piteous and forlorn,
No hope for pardon or for grace,
Had Jesus not been born.
Had Jesus not been born.

4. My song is done, I must be gone,
I can stay no longer here;
God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a happy New Year.

This, while it lacks the freshness, the naiveté, and indeed pretty nearly all the typical and characteristic qualities of the folk-carol, is nevertheless quite as good as some, and far better than many of the modern Christmas hymns annually sung in fashionable Churches and Chapels.

There is, perhaps, no branch of folk-music in the creation of which the unconscious art of the peasant is seen to greater advantage than the carol. For his peculiar and most characteristic qualities, mental and emotional, are precisely those which in this case are most needed ― his passion for simple, direct statement, his dislike of ornament and of all the tricks of circumlocution, his abhorrence of sentimentality, and above all his courage in using, without hesitation, the obvious and commonplace phrase, of words or music, when by its means the required expression can most easily be realized. What cultivated musician would dare to set to such words as "The Virgin Unspotted" the graceful, flowing, 3-time melody given in this collection, even if he had the luck or skill to think of it? What, again, could be more concise in its diction or clearer in its meaning, than the last stanza in "King Herod and the Cock," or more vivid than the following lines in "The New Year's Carol"? ―

Then Christ He called Thomas
And bid him: Come and see
And put thy fingers in the wounds
That are in my body;
And be not faithless, but believe!
And happy shalt thou be ―

which will, I venture to think, bear comparison with the parallel stanza of the Easter Carol "Ye Sons and Daughters," translated by Neale.1

It is just his transparent sincerity, his freedom from affection, self-consciousness and conventional restrictions, that makes the unlettered rustic pre-eminently fitted to translate into music and poetry the dramatic incidents of the Christ story. His simplicity disarms criticism; just as his pious, intense, child-like belief in every detail of the Gospel narrative banishes scepticism. Nor did he trouble himself about the place of performance; village Church or village inn ― it mattered not. A tune, so long as it expressed his feeling, harmonized with the sense and fitted the metre of the words, served his purpose wherever and whenever it was destined to be sung.

Even when, in later days, his carols suffered from the intrusion of theological doctrine, he somehow managed to avoid the religious emotionalism of the revivalist. Take, for instance, the tune of "The Little Room" given in this collection; note the noble sweep, the severe grandeur of its phrases and compare it with the air to which those words would be set in a mission hymn-book.

The folk-carol defies imitation. A skilled musician, saturated in the literature of his country's folk-music, might, conceivably, make a folk-song without betraying himself; but it seems impossible that he could imitate a popular carol and escape detection.

There is, then, every reason why we should do all that is possible, while there is yet time, to collect and publish our traditional carols; for in them we have a unique possession, a national heritage of inestimable worth.


Dragonfield, Uxbridge,
    November, 1911

Editor's Notes

1. Sharp is here referring to John Mason Neale, and the following stanzas:

5. When Thomas afterwards had heard
That Jesus had fulfilled his word,
He doubted if it were the Lord.

6. 'Thomas, behold my side,' saith he,
'My hands, my feet, my body see;
'And doubt not, but believe in me.'

7. No longer Thomas then denied;
He saw the feet, the hands, the side;
'Thou art my Lord and God,' he cried.

Source: The English Hymnal (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), #626. Return

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