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Yesterday our Yule blog looked at the histories behind some carol services, from Christingle to Nine Lessons & Carols. Today then, lets zoom in on a few carols. (For more on this and everything else Christmassy, don’t forget to add Hark! The Biography of Christmas to your Christmas list.)

First up, a brief history of the carol. They’re thought to have began in France, not
as songs but as dances, and not necessarily to do with Christmas (otherwise why would we call them “Christmas carols”?). They weren’t necessarily sacred – in fact they were rather bawdy. Any religious music of the day was generally written by monks – the only ones who could read music.

Carols that started as brash circular dances were dragged into church and used for festivals and processions – circles becoming lines. And while the French danced and the church processed, the Anglo- Saxons wassailed: small choirs touring the parish, not to spread the church’s message, but because they weren’t welcome in church until they stopped singing their silly songs. Pure festive escapism.


A circular carol dance. Or the hokey-cokey – it’s difficult to tell.

To show how frowned-upon the carol was by the church, hear from the twelfth century’s William of Malmesbury. He told an advisory horror story: “Othbert, a sinner” refused to stop dancing his outrageous carols, so was cursed to keep dancing for a full year, till he danced into a deep pit. So, obey the church’s instruction, or that could be you, the eternal dancer of carols…

  • IN DULCI JUBILO – From 1328, one of the earliest carols still played in some form (if only by Mike Oldfield on The Best Christmas Songs Ever album), it’s also noted for being macaronic. Nothing to do with the Macarena (apart from that the Macarena is also macaronic) – it means mixing two languages, in this case alternating German and Latin. Its writer Heinrich Suso was the most popular vernacular writer of the day.
  • COVENTRY CAROL – Medieval Christianity saw reverence grow towards Mary. This shifted attention from Easter towards Christmas, and helped carols transform from uncouth dances to gentler sacred songs, even lullabies. They had a perfect home alongside, or in, the new non-Latin mystery plays – ever since St Francis of Assisi started staging Nativity plays, and writing carols in non-Latin. So the stage is set for this 16th century classic: “The Coventry Carol”, taken from the Coventry mystery play, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. It was a retelling of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, and features this brutally sad song – a mother’s lullaby to her doomed son. It still haunts today, when sung alongside its later, more joyful carolling counterparts:

    This poor youngling
    For whom we do sing
    By, by, lully lullay
    Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child By, by, lully lullay.

  • GOD REST YE MERRY, GENTLEMEN: “Waits” were buskers of their day; street musicians licensed to collect money in the Christmas build-up. One favourite, dating back to at least the 1500s, was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. So this was originally a song sung on street corners, to get a bit of money from those merry gentlemen.

  • WHILE SHEPHERDS WATCHED: When the Puritans banned Christmas in the 1600s, the carol became little more than poetry for individual contemplation – still read, rarely sung. When the monarchy and Christmas returned, Christmas celebration was cautious. So this carol reigned supreme for a century as the only Christmas hymn authorised by the Church of England. After all, it was biblically accurate. “I Saw Three Ships”, dating back to at least the 1600s, didn’t stand up to a literal interpretation: how can anyone see three ships sailing into Bethlehem? It’s twenty miles inland.
  • JOY TO THE WORLD: This 1719 rewrite of a psalm sounds Christmassy now, but it was written about Christ’s return at the end of days, not the Bethlehem birth. The first eight notes are actually a simple scale backwards. We all could have written that.
  • HARK! HOW ALL THE WELKIN RINGS: Er, don’t you mean “Hark! e Herald Angels Sing”? Well yes, Methodist leader Charles Wesley wrote the original on hearing chiming Christmas church bells. It was first sung to the same tune as the hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”; today’s familiar tune was written a century later by Queen Victoria’s favourite notesmith, Felix Mendelssohn. He wrote this music for the four-hundredth anniversary of the printing press, and expressly requested that the “soldier-like and buxom” tune should never be used for religious purposes. Then he died, and, well… whoops.
  • CHRISTIANS AWAKE!: A Christmas gift poem by John Byrom for his daughter. Byrom also created a modern shorthand writing system – though that would be an even weirder present.


    The ‘Silent Night’ chapel in Obendorf, Austria.

  • SILENT NIGHT: Legend has it that church mice ate through the organ of the village church in Oberndorf, Austria – so Father Joseph Mohr had to run to his organist pal, and they spent Christmas Eve 1818 putting music to Mohr’s poem, for a performance that night, just the two of them and a guitar. Joseph Mohr’s godfather was Salzburg’s final official executioner, fact fans.
  • ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID’S CITY: Another poem to begin with, written specifically for children by Cecil Frances Alexander. The same 1848 book of poems also included ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away’.
  • O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM: Written after an inspirational trip to the Holy Land in the 1860s. Notice that the 18th century was all Hallelujahs and Herald Angels – Jesus as divine – while the 19th century was more child- and crib-focused – Jesus as human.
  • MISTLETOE & WINE: It’s not a carol. Don’t be silly.

More in the book, if you fancy.