The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Alternate Title: The Moon Shone Bright

English Folk Carol, 16th - 18th Century
Notes On The Carol

Version 1, The Wassail Page
Compare: Version 2, The Bellman's Song (Oxford Book of Carols)

Alternate Titles: The Moon Shines Bright (Sandys) and The Waits' Song (Bramley and Stainer)

Tune: Traditional English
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML

1. The moon shone bright
And the stars gave a light,
A little before it was day;
The Lord our God he call'd on us1
And he bade us awake and pray.

2. Awake, awake, good people all,
Awake and you shall hear
How our dear Lord died on the cross2
For us whom He loved so dear.

3. O fair, O fair Jerusalem,
When shall we come to thee?
When shall our sorrows have an end,
Thy joy that we may see?

4. The fields were green as green could be,
When from his glorious seat3
Our blessed Father watered us4
With His heavenly dew so sweet.

5. And for the saving of our souls
Christ died upon the Cross;
We ne'er shall do for Jesus Christ
As He has done for us.

6. The life of man is but a span,
And cut down in its flower,5
We are here today, tomorrow gone,
The creatures of an hour.

7. Instruct and teach your children well,
The while that you are here;
It may be better for your soul
When your corpse lies on the bier.

8. Today you be alive and well,
With many a thousand pound;
Tomorrow dead and cold as clay
When your corpse lies on the ground.

9. With one turf at your head, good man,6
And another at your feet,
Thy good deeds and thy bad, O man,
Will altogether meet.

10. 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 joyful new year!

Other versions add the following:

11. So give your heed to what we sing,
While you're alive and sound,
It may be better for your soul,
When your corpse lies on the ground.

12. God bless the master of this house;
God bless the mistress here,
And all the little children
Around the table dear.

God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a happy new year.
(sung to the melody of the last 2 lines)


1. Or: Our Lord he looked down on us. Return

2. Or: How our dear Lord died on the cross. Return

3: Or: heavenly. Return

4. Or: mighty Lord he. Return

5. Or: an hour. Return

6. Or: stone. Return

William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868):

This carol is much in use in the midland and western counties. A shorter version is found on sheets issued by the Seven Dials printers and likewise on west-country broadsides (on which the present version also appears), under the title of "The Bellman." In the Seven Dials copy the four line runs, "And hark! the bellman of the night." Both versions have much the appearance of being what were formally called "Bellman's Verses."

The functionary known in bygone times as the Bellman was a kind of night watchman, who, in addition to his staff and lantern, carried a bell, and at a certain period of the year was wont to arouse the slumbering inhabitants of the town to listen to some such effusion as that now printed. For this service (?) he looked for some gratuity at Christmas.

Herrick has a little poem called "The Bellman," which takes the form of these nocturnal addresses: --

"From noise of scare-fires rest ye free,
From murders Benedicite;
From all mischanges that may fright
Your pleasing slumbers in the night
Mercy secure ye all, and keep
The goblin from ye while ye sleep.
Past one o'clock, and almost two;
My masters all, Good day to you."

And we must not forget Milton's mention in his "Il Penseroso" of

    "The belman's drowsy charm
To bless the doors from nightly harm."

In a scarce and curious tract, first published in 1608, by Thomas Dekker, the dramatist and satirist, under the title of "The Belman of London, bringing to light the most notorious villanies that are now practised in the kingdome," there is a woodcut engraving representing a Bellman of the period going his rounds, who carries a staff, lantern, and bell, and is followed by his dog.

One of the verses of Shakespeare's song, "It was a lover and his lass" (sung by the two pages in "As you like it"), runs thus: --

"This Carroll they began that houre
  With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino;
How that a life was but a flower
  In the spring time," &c

which may possibly allude to the present carol, or to some other containing a passage similar to the sixth verse of this [e.g., The life of man is but a span...].

Several lines of this carol are incorporated into a Mayers' Song, sung in Hertfordshire, a copy of which is given in Hone's "Every-day Book," vol. i col. 567, and some lines are also found in another version of the same song, which continues in use in Huntingdownshire, a copy of which may be seen in "Notes and Queries," 3rd series, ix. 388.

Also found in Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1914), p. 201. She gave the title as The Moon Shone Bright; or, The Bellman. Rickert gives this alternate 7th verse:

7. O pray teach your children, man,
    The while that you are here;
It will be better for your soul
    When your corpse lies on the bier.

Note: Verses 3 through 6, inclusive, are sometimes found as a separate poem under the title "O Fair Jerusalem!"

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