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7. Christmas carols

carols

Arthur Bullen, A Christmas Garland. Carols and poems from the fifteenth century to the present time. Edited by A. H. Bullen. With … illustrations, etc, (1885), https://flic.kr/p/ieaJu2

In 1833 William Sandys, author of Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern complained that since the end of the eighteenth century the singing of carols ‘had declined and many old customs have been gradually becoming obsolete”.[1] David Gilbert in his Some Ancient Christmas Carols had referred to them in 1822 ‘as specimens of times now passed away’.[2] Neither though probably realised how long a tradition the singing of Christmas carols actually had. One of the earliest hymns we might term a Christmas Carol dates back to the mid-4th century; the rather severe “Veni, redemptor gentium” focuses on the redemption of man by Christ and is about as far as one can get from “Jingle Bells”.[3] After the collapse of the Roman Empire the practice declined but slowly re-emerged in the form of Christian poetry after the 9th Century. The earliest example of published English carols is probably the work of blind chaplain John Awdley of Shropshire in his 1426 work listing twenty-five carols, some of which may have been far older. These it has been proposed, may have been sung house to house by wassailers though this is far from certain.[4] They were religious pieces for communal celebration; after the reformation in England religious poetry and carol writing became more individualistic. While people in the countryside continued to sing carols some, notably Clement Miles, have derided their quality complaining that they lack ‘the exquisite loveliness of the medieval’ carols.[5] This though is when what might be called the modern carol was born – “God rest ye merry Gentlemen” which Miles sneers at for its quaintness was probably written at this time in the 16th or 17th Century.

        However, their popularity declined in subsequent centuries. In 1813 an extract in the Liverpool Mercury read: “The Carols formerly sung at this season of the year, were festal chansons for enlivening the merriment of the Christmas celebrity. The old song with some variations, is still retained in Queen’s College, Oxford, and sung annually on Christmas day’.[6] However, antiquarians like Sandys who re-published “God rest ye” along with “Hark the herald” and “I saw Three Ships” helped bring them back to popularity with enthusiast composers like Arthur Sullivan and his ilk writing new tunes as the century progressed. Thankfully, by December 1892 the vicar of St Saviour’s in Leeds was able to complain about the ‘rough and ready activities … none the better for being joined to carols sung in no devotional spirit’.[7]

by Alex Wakelam

[1] William Sandys, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833), 1.

[2] David Gilbert, Some Ancient Christmas Carols (London: John Nichols and son, 1823), 3.

[3] Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions Their History and Significance (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), 31.

[4] Miles, Christmas Customs, 47.

[5] Miles, Christmas Customs, 77.

[6] Liverpool Mercury (Liverpool: 1813), Issue 131, Friday December 1813.

[7] Neil Armstrong, Christmas in nineteenth century England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 135.

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