The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern

Joshua Sylvester

(London: John Camden Hotten, 1861)

Sylvester-Garland-Title-1861.jpg (38838 bytes)

Joshua Sylvestre, Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (New York: A. Wessels Company, 1901, 1905)

Much of the original was omitted in this reprint by the A. Wessels Company in 1901 and 1905 (and they also spelled his name wrong). The 1905 reprint at Google Books: Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern.

Editor's Note: This web page was originally based on the reprints from 1901 and 1905. However, scans of Sylvester's original 1861 publication have recently become available, showing that the 1901/1905 "reprints" contained only Parts I & II, omitting the balance of the original. I have incorporated the carols from the original publication that were omitted in the reprints.

For unknown reasons, the reprint also misspelled the last name of the author: it is "Sylvester" not "Sylvestre." Oddly, the name of the printer is substituted for the name of the editor in some catalogs and databases.

Hugh Keyte, an editor of The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) believes that "Joshua Sylvester" is a pseudonym for a collaboration between William Sandys (1792-1874) and William Henry Husk (1814-1887). See Appendix 4.

The similarity of the notes contained in Sylvester and Husk collections bears out this conclusion; for example, see Remember, O Thou Man

The real "Joshua Sylvester" (1563 – 1618) was an English poet; this link is to the Wikipedia article about Mr. Sylvester.

William Henry Husk, in his introduction to "The Worcestershire Christmas Carol," noted that that carol had only been rarely published, including "in a collection published under the pseudonym of Joshua Sylvester in 1861."

At this web site:

At Internet Archive:



Editor’s Note: Following some titles, I have given the first line of the carol in parenthesis, which in some cases is also the common title of the carol.

(see below)

Part I. Legendary and Narrative Carols

Carol for St. Stephen’s Day (Saint Stephen Was A Clerk)

The Virgin and Child (This Winter's Night, I Saw A Sight)

The Three Kings (Now is the time of Christmas come)

The Golden Carol of Melchoir, Balthazar, and Gaspar, The Three Kings of Cologne (We saw a light shine out afar)

For Christmas Day in the Morning (The First Nowell)

I Saw Three Ships

The Carnal and the Crane (As I passed by a river side)

The Angel Gabriel From God

The Holy Well (As It Fell Out One May Morning)

All You That Are To Mirth Inclined

Gloria Tibi, Domine (There Is A Child Born Of Our Blessed Virgin)

The Cherry Tree Carol (Joseph was an old man)

Dives and Lazarus (As it fell out upon a day)

The Moon Shines Bright

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

A Virgin Most Pure

The Worcestershire Christmas Carol (How grand and how bright)

Come Rejoice, All Good Christians

The Seven Virgins (All under the leaves, the leaves of life)

Last Night As I Lay Sleeping


Part II. Religious Carols

In Excelsis Gloria” (When The Christ Was Born of Mary Free)

Welcome Yule (Welcome be thou heavenly King)

A Carol on the Birth of Christ (Was not Christ our Saviour / Sent unto us from God above)

Carol, With Lullaby (Lulla, la lulla, lulla lullaby, / My sweet little babe, what meanest thou to cry?)

New Prince, New Pomp (Behold A Simple Tender Babe)

For Christmas Day (Immortal Babe, Who This Dear Day)

The Shepherd's Song (Sweet Music, sweeter far)

Christmas Tide (Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes)

Hymn on the Nativity of my Saviour (I Sing The Birth Was Born To-Night)

The Angels’ Song (Run, Shepherds, run where Bethlem blest appears)

Remember, O Thou Man

A Christmas Carol (What sweeter music can we bring)
Also found under the title "A Christmas Carol, Sung To The King In The Presence At Whitehall"

The Star Song (Tell Us, Thou Cleere And Heavenly Tongue)

An Ode on the Birth of our Saviour (In Numbers, And But These Few)

Christmas Day (As on the night before this happy morn)

The Virgin Mother (Come Behold The Virgin Mother)

Joy To The World - Version 3

Hark The Herald Angels Sing - Sandys

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

Hark! All Around The Welkin Rings

Mortals Awake With Angels Join

A New Christmas Carol (It Is The Day, The Holy Day)

Christ Was Born on Christmas Day


Part III. Numeral Carols

Numeral Hymns were common in the olden time. Frequently they were set as tasks for children to acquire, and he received most praise who could ascend correctly to the highest number.

Concerning counting songs generally, see the notes to the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The Seven Joys (The First Good Joy Our Mary Had)

A New Dial (One God, One Baptisme, And One Fayth)

Man's Duty; or, Meditation for the Twelve Hours of  the Day (One God There Is Of Wisdom)


Part IV. Carols In Praise Of The Holly and Ivy

The custom of decking houses and churches with evergreens, towards the close of the year, appears to be of very ancient date ; it being, in fact, one of those remnants of Paganism, which, although forbidden by the councils of the early Christian Church, had obtained too strong a hold on the prejudices of the people to be readily relinquished, as its transmission down to the present day serves to prove.

I am indebted to Mr. Wright's MS. [Songs and Carols] for the following:
Holly and Ivy made a great Party (Holly And Ivy)

Here comes Holly (Here Comes Holly)

Nay, Ivy, nay (The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly)

Holly Carol (Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind)

The Holly and the Ivy (The Holly And The Ivy)


Part V. Carols In Praise Of The Boar's Head

Under the head of Boar's Head Carols I have grouped together a few that were formerly in much request at Christmas celebrations. In those days Carols of this kind usually heralded the entertainment of good things provided by the generous host.

The first dish that was served up in the old baronial halls was the Boar's Head, which was brought in with great state, and with minstrelsy. Between the flourishes of the heralds' trumpets, Carols were chanted forth.

The one which immediately follows is taken from Mr. T. Wright's MS. [Tydynges I Bryng 3ow For To Tell, in Songs and Carols], the spelling being modernised.

Tidings I Bring You For To Tell

The Boar's Head In Hand I Bring

The Boar's Head In Hand Bring I

The Boar's Head, That We Bring Here

The Boar Is Dead


Part VI. Festive Carols

Angelo-Norman Carol (Lordings, Listen To Our Lay)

Sir Christmas

A Carol in praise of Ale (A Bone, God Wot!)

A Carol for a Wassail-Bowl

God Bless The Master Of This House

Come Bring The Noise

The Wassail (Give Way, Give Way, Ye Gates, And Win)

Merry Christmas (So, Now Is Come Our Joyfulst Feast)

All You That In This House Be Here

Cheer (Now kindly for my pretty song)

Old Christmas Returned ("All you that to feasting and mirth are inclined")

Now Thrice Welcome Christmas

Now Christmas Day Approaches Near

Christmas Customs (Now That The Time Is Come)

Christmas Is A Coming (You merry, merry souls)

The Wassailers' Carol (The Wassail Song)

Wassailers' Carol (Wassail ! Wassail ! All Over The Town)

Carol for the Poor (Be merry all, be merry all)

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Note from Sylvester:

The above representation of a Wassail Bowl is from a carving on a chimney-piece of an old mansion formerly existing at Birling, Kent. The terms Wassail and Drinkhail are both from the Anglo-Saxon. The former is equivalent to the modern phrase, " Your health ; " and the latter means, in plain English, " Drink health." See under "Festive Carols," page 161.

SOME years ago I walked clown to Seven Oaks, in Kent, to enjoy the blessed Christmas. This village is one of a few in the vicinity of London uncontaminated by a railway with its crowd of giddy visitors from the great city. I had just returned from abroad, after a long residence there, and even the minor observances and customs of the season possessed a pleasing novelty and charm. As I passed through Bromley I observed the shops, filled with viands for the great yearly feast, decorated with the emblems of the season.

The little cottage on the roadside had its Sprigs of holly in the window, and ruddy children stood at the door with faces that betokened how near was the general holiday. As I drew toward my destination I occasionally passed a peasant carrying the, to him, sumptuous meal for the morrow -- perhaps the bountiful gift of the good lady at the manor-house -- or bearing on his shoulder a block to light up his cottage hearth in honor of Christmas-tide. I could not help thinking, as I moved along, that on the eve of this glorious day all nature seemed to sink into repose after the labors and storms of the past year.

The quiet village of Seven Oaks exhibited that neat and cleanly aspect so often admired by visitors to this country when passing through our more orderly rural districts. The trimmed hedgerows, whitened door-steps and glistening window-panes, with the prim and happy old people passing about making preparations for the morrow pictured forth a delightful scene of order and contentment.

Fatigued with my walk, I retired to rest early. A bright moon was shining into my chamber, and through the window I could see lights moving about the apartments of Knowle House1 a short distance across the park, indicating that the great people were also preparing for the mirthful time. I had not been in the room very long before my ears were saluted by a sweet music of youthful voices. Opening the casement I found some young villagers singing a carol. The tune was plaintive, and simple in the extreme, and appeared to harmonize exactly with the scene and the occasion. It was the old carol of “God rest you, Merry Gentlemen," and if a critic should aver that the piece was more appropriate for the following day, I can only say that the melody sounded very delightful on that still and frosty night. After a time the little folks withdrew, and I heard their voices in the distance, apparently not far from a neighboring farm-house. As Irving remarked on a similar occasion, the notes of the carolists 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 sunk upon my pillow, and I fell asleep. In the early morning my window was again saluted by a joyous song, and going to it I discovered two young men and three girls "welcoming with sweet music the blessed morn."

Such is a brief narrative of Christmas associations that I always remember with pleasure. Although personal, I trust the reminiscences will be considered a not inappropriate introduction to our subject.

Christmas carols doubtless had their origin in that celestial music which Milton describes in his "Hymn to the Nativity":

`Such music (as `tis said)
Before was never made
But when of old the sons of morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellation set."

The oldest religions hymns, sung by the early Christians in the centuries immediately following Christ's death, have not been handed down to us. The most ancient carols that we now possess date from the Middle Ages, and consist generally of portions of miracle plays, religious spectacles, and old religious legends.

Thus one miracle play, the most popular, perhaps, of any of these biblical representations, "The Creation of the World," has supplied several carols. It was acted in London so late as the reign of Queen Anne. The introduction in the same performance of Adam and Eve, Herod, and the Duke of Marlborough, cannot, be considered as good taste, however much the blending of antediluvian with current history may have contributed to fill Mr. Heatly's purse. The handbill to the performance reads thus -- I have ita1icised those scenes which now form the subject of carols:


At Heatley’s Booth,

Over against the cross Daggers, next to Mr. Miller's Booth: During the time of Bartholomew fair, will be presented a little Opera call’d The Old Creation of The World, newly reviv`d, with the addition of the Glorious Battle obtained over the French and Spaniards by his Grace the Duke of Marlborough.

The Contents Are These.

1. The Creation of Adam and Eve.
2. The intreagues of Lucifer in the Garden of Eden.
3. Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise.
4. Cain going to plow, Abel driving sheep.
5. Cain killeth his brother Abel.
6. Abraham offering his son Isaac.
7. Three Wisemen of the East guided by a Star, who worship him.
8. Joseph and Mary flee away by night upon an ass.
9. King Herod's Cruelty, his men's spears laden with children.
10. Rich Dives invites his friends, and orders his porter to keep the beggars from his gate.
11. Poor Lazarus comes a begging at rich Dives' gate, the dogs lick his sores.
12. The good angel and death contend for Lazarus' life.
13. Rich Dives is taken sick and dieth, he is buried in great solemnity.
14. Rich Dives in Hell, and Lazarus in Abraham's bosom, seen in a most glorious object, all in machines descending in a throne guarded with multitudes of angels, with the breaking of the clouds discovering the palace of the Sun in double and treble prospects, to the admiration of the spectators

In the early ages the bishops were accustomed on Christmas Day to sing carols among the clergy.

Some of the legendary carols are very beautiful, and shadow forth the true spirit of our most admired ballad poetry. That entitled the "Holy Well," I would beg to bring forward as a specimen. Although a fragment of an old monkish sermon, or, perhaps, the story of a priest to his simple audience, it is, to my thinking, full of poesy and fine feeling. Jesus, when young, had the ideas and youthful tastes of other children. One day he obtained permission of his mother to play with seine little children down by the Holy Well. The juveniles proved to be "lords' and ladies'" sons, and knowing the poverty of Jesus' parents, they objected to his company, and twitted him with the meanness of his birth, Nothing can be more natural than the anger of the indignant mother upon learning the insult. She knows the mighty power of her heavenly boy, but the feelings of a wounded mother's pride are too strong to he suppressed, and she calls upon her son to punish them with his terrible malediction, Jesus' answer is soft and beautiful

"Nay, nay` sweet Jesus mildly said,
"Nay, nay, that must not be,
For there are too many sinful souls
Crying out for the help of me,"

Books of carols were cried about the streets of Paris as early as the thirteenth century. In this country we know, from some fragments preserved in the public libraries, that they were published by the first printers.

There also exist numerous old MSS containing ancient carols; but these, although they delighted our forefathers when sung by the minstrels, are now almost forgotten. In the time of Henry VIII. and down to the early years of the reign of Charles I; carols were general at the festive season. When the Puritans came into power, however, an act of parliament was passed, “That no observation shall be had of the 25th day of December, commonly called Christmas Day," and the consequence was that carols fell into disuse. At the Restoration they once more came into public favor; but, owing to the fondness of Charles for worldly enjoyment, the carols that were composed and sung at this period are more frequently the subject of noisy mirth and festivity than religion. From this date to the present time the popularity of these joyous songs has been on the wane. Fashions have changed, and tastes have altered; and in this age of giddy excitement people appear to prefer novelty and flippant amusement to the innocent and delightful pastime of their ancient fathers.

Forty years ago an antiquary [William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described, 1823] wrote complainingly; "Carols begin to be spoken of as not belonging to this century, and yet no one, as I am aware of, has attempted a collection of these fugitives." Several gleaners since then, however, have entered the field, Mr. Davies Gilbert [1822 and 1823], Mr. Sandys [1833], Dr. Rimbault [1846], and Mr. Thomas Wright [1841 and 1847] have each garnered their gleanings into little volumes. From these I have derived much assistance in the compilation of the present work.

Much more could have been said in this introduction relative to the history of carols than has been attempted, but the remarks prefixed to each carol will be found to contain many particulars concerning our subject. With regard to the date of these pieces, most of them may be pronounced ancient -- if not in composition, yet in subject.

The Editor is aware that many of the carols represent the most indifferent poetry. He was prevailed upon to include them in the collection for various reasons, -- their earnest simplicity, the old religious stories they frequently contained, together with a considerable respect for that general favor which for many generations has been accorded to them by all classes.

In collecting materials for the present work it was endeavoured not to include anything contrary to morality or good taste. The Editor has arranged the Carols under the several heads of Legendary and Narrative ; Religious; Numeral; Carols in praise of the Holly and Ivy; Boar's Head Carols; and a selection of what may be entitled Festive Carols the joyous songs of ancient hospitality and harmless mirth ; the blending of festive enjoyment with religion of the heart. In the old days of simple manners it was the custom to hail the season of Christ's birth with a smiling face.

" Man, be merie as bry d on berie,
  and al thi care let away !"

is the advice prefixed to an ancient Carol in the British Museum.

J. S.

Note by Sylvester:

1. The magnificent seat of the Earl Amherst, formerly the residence of the Sackvilles, Dukes of Dorset. The house covers upwards of five acres of ground, and furnishes specimens of the architecture of various ages. Return

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