ENGLISH Christmas carols are a hotchpotch, like the English
themselves. Perhaps that is why they are so popular. They have the
power to summon up a special kind of midwinter mood, like the aroma
of mince pies and mulled wine, and the twinkle of lights on a tree.
It is a kind of magic.
How did they get that magic? Most of these songs were not
composed as Christmas carols. Many were not "composed" at all.
Almost all did not begin life with the words they now have. Some
did not even have words.
Several evolved from folk songs: some are evolving still. One
much-loved carol started out as a song about a delinquent farm-boy
and a couple of dead cows. Many of the most "English" carols have
at least one ancestor in another country.
The origins of the word "carol" are almost as murky as the
history of some of the tunes themselves. Most European languages,
living and dead, have been quoted as the source of the word,
although most writers agree that there is a dash of French in there
In the beginning, a "carol" was a celebratory song, with
dancing. There is no exclusive connection to Christmas. Music is in
the traditional "stanza and burden" (or "verse and refrain")
format. It certainly has nothing to do with church.
In about 1400, the gory tale of "Sir Gawain and the Green
Knight", as translated by J. R. R.Tolkien, tells us: "The King lay
at Camelot at Christmas-tide with many a lovely lord . . . to the
court they came at carols to play . . . they danced, and danced on,
and dearly they carolled."
Choirs sang church music; everyone else sang carols. Tolkien's
version of Sir Gawain draws the distinction between "songs of
delight, such as canticles of Christmas" and "carol-dances".
Folk carols on Christian themes were sung in the field, the
graveyard, and on semi-magical processions around the parish. Their
texts often cover the entire Christian world-view, from creation to
resurrection. Today, we tend to just snip out the bits we want at
Christmas; for example: "Tomorrow shall be my dancing day", and
"The Cherry Tree Carol", which was not how our medieval forebears
used these songs at all. Fifteenth-century English carols began to
take on some of the sophistication of the church composer. The
texts are "macaronic": that is, freely dropping Latin words and
phrases into an English lyric:
Ther is no rose of swych vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu. . .
BY THE 16th century, the word "carol" could find itself loosely
applied to any song with a seasonal connection, but still not just
Christmas. An ancient and mysterious folk song appeared under the
title "Corpus Christi Carol" in 1504.
The court composer William Cornysh was paid the handsome sum of
£20 for "setting of a Carrall upon Xmas day" at around the same
time as Wynkyn de Worde included the entirely secular "Carol of
Hunting" in the collection that he (rather confusingly) called
"Christmasse carolles" in 1521.
One of William Byrd's consort songs from around the 1580s,
designed to be sung at home, has the subtitle "A Caroll for
New-Yeares Day". A text sung in church at Christmas could also be a
"carol", whether the words make any reference to the nativity or
Protestants wanted to grab the best tunes back from the devil
and the pub. During the Reformation, secular songs and well-known
chorales started to be used in worship. Compilers of tunes for
psalm-singing, hugely influential and popular, put them in their
Alongside this went a passion for education. School songbooks
sprang up everywhere. One such book, Piae Cantiones
ecclesiasticae velerum episcoporum, is the source of a large
number of our best-known carols. In France, dancing-masters and
chefs du choeur started noting down little rustic Noëls
and incorporating them into published collections for teaching,
playing, dancing, and singing, and sometimes adding new words. All
feed into the tradition we have today.
In the mid-17th century, a more extreme brand of Protestantism
took hold in England, with its stern disapproval of any kind of
levity in church - or, indeed, anywhere else. The Puritans,
famously, banned Christmas.
The jollity came back in a great whirl of enthusiasm at the
Restoration, in 1660. Carols, like life, were mainly an excuse for
having fun. Songs about drinking, wassailing, eating, and dancing
were especially popular.
HE more measured Protestantism of the last of the Stuarts -
William, Mary, and Anne - made its own distinctive contribution.
The beginnings of congregational hymn-singing in the 18th century
give us familiar carols such as "While shepherds watched", still
closely based on the old style of metrical psalm-singing. These
words have been sung to all sorts of different tunes, each one
reflecting the social and religious preoccupations of the
The Wesleys and Watts gave their followers lengthy devotions to
sing on the dusty road, which have been absorbed into the popular
consciousness. Watts's lovely "Cradle Song" turns up, suitably
distorted by the Chinese whispers of an oral tradition, as the
words of an English folk song.
Parish churches, with their distinctive bands of
instrumentalists and West Gallery choirs, mixed fashionable
metropolitan musical style with a love of hymn-singing, and their
own intensely local traditions, to create something sturdy,
uniquely English, and full of character.
In the mid-19th century, antiquarians and folklorists such as
William Chappell began to collect and publish their native folk
songs. There are several important books devoted just to Christmas
carols. These men were compilers, working from existing sources
such as ballad sheets, or the libraries of earlier collectors.
The next stage, in the early 20th century, was for the new
generation of "gleaners" to go out into the highways and byways and
hear folk carols for themselves.
Cecil Sharp explains how it is done: "Only a few weeks ago, I
asked two elderly 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 head 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!"
OST of the early books and ballad sheets did not contain tunes.
The oral tradition was so well established that you could happily
assume your reader would already know them.
Often, it was enough simply to print the name of the tune; or,
if the words were in a common metre, allow the singer to use any
matching tune that he or she already knew. This contributed to the
huge variety and lack of standardisation about which tune goes with
which particular text.
Even when the same tune was used in different towns and
villages, it could differ between one and the other. The same tune
could exist in scores of versions, alike in essentials but quite
different in detail.
When Sharp and others started writing down the tunes as people
actually sang them, it became clear how an oral tradition militates
against uniformity. Stainer's "God rest ye merry, gentlemen" has a
different first note from Sharp's. Stainer got the tune from the
streets of London; Sharp collected it in Cambridge. That interval
of 50 miles shows up as the musical interval of a perfect
The melodies, if not inspired, are usually strong and sincere,
and, plainly, the expression of genuine feeling. Sharp said that
"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."
Some have an artfulness that, Sharp suggests, implies the
existence of an author, but with no clue to who might have done the
deed. Translations complicate things further, not just between
languages, but from one style of religious practice or one century
to another. Many fall between the cracks, or slip down the back of
There is an element of choice, of editing, in what the collector
does. Vaughan Williams takes this one stage further, regarding his
published versions of tunes as a further variant, and allowing
himself to add or smooth out musical details: the long note before
the last line of "O little town of Bethlehem", for example, is his
HIS creative unreliability of the field collection comes vividly
into focus when technology allowed collectors to start making
sound-recordings, around the beginning of the 20th century. Thanks
to the wonderful British Library sound archive, we can listen to
the crackling sounds of men and women, some of whom watched as
children when the lads of their village marched off to fight Boney,
singing carols and drinking tea.
So far, much of this has nothing to do with the Church. The
liturgy, the content of divine worship, was prescribed by law, and
was no place for most of these irreverent impostors.
In the 19th century, the Church began to make a distinctive
contribution of its own. The clergy played a crucial part as
editors, translators, composers, arrangers, and authors. A number
of familiar items were newly written in the United States.
The stirring congregational tub-thumper, and the organ to go
with it, were the invention of the Victorians. Their successors,
perhaps prudently, sought to ameliorate some of its excesses. The
introduction to the English Hymnal of 1906 comments rather
sniffily: "A large body of voices singing together makes a
distinctly artistic effect, though that of each individual voice
might be the opposite. And it may be added that a desire to parade
a trained choir often accompanies a debased musical taste."
Carol singing used to belong in the street far more than in the
pew. The sight of carol-singers merrily tramping from door to door
has vanished to such an extent that we can easily forget just how
familiar and widespread the practice was, until surprisingly
The carol used to be an outdoors creature, a farmyard animal as
much as a domestic pet. Here is one account from 1869: "Having
spent some part of my Christmas holidays in a retired little town
in Gloucestershire, where many old customs and superstitions still
linger, I, of course, came in for a good share of carol
"These, however, differed very much from the irreverent and
discordant caterwauling (I cannot call it anything else) which
greet our ears evening after evening in our suburban
OR all his hauteur, the writer captures well the types and sheer
irrepressible ubiquity of alfresco singing in both town and
country, and the carefree mixture of sacred and secular which forms
the repertoire of these rude mechanicals. And, still, the idea
remains that a Christmas carol is, in some respects, a thing not
quite proper for church.
At the same time, carols began to be considered worthy of
academic attention. Early-20th-century scholars put their texts in
anthologies. Thanks to publications such as The
English Hymnal, the two "University" carol books, and the
Cowley Carol Book, the 20th century came to value the
inclusivity of a body of songs that everybody knew.
The old distinction between indoor and outdoor carols was
largely gone. Items that are more properly Christmas hymns are
printed and sung alongside traditional Christmas carols.
The editors of these books, like Luther, knew how to value a
good tune, wherever it came from, while still attempting to scrub
off the remaining patina of "debased" Victorian sentimentality.
The attempt continues. Christmas carols are, perhaps, the
nearest thing we still have to a folk tradition - an oral
tradition. We know them because we know them. We never really
learnt them: they have just always been there.
This gives the tradition a particularly fluid quality, able to
absorb influences from all over the place but never quite settling
into a finished format. How does the second verse of "O little town
of Bethlehem" actually go? Or the last verse of "Away in a manger"?
Is it "Stay by my side until morning is nigh," or "Stay by my
bedside till morning is nigh"?
At least when we are working with the published words of a
well-known author, we must be singing the words in an accepted
"correct" version, mustn't we? Well, no.Charles Wesley did not
write "Hark, the herald angels sing": he wrote "Hark, how all the
welkin rings". So why don't we sing it like that?
We sing carols in the versions we do because - we just do. These
tunes, gathered together like outcasts from all over the world,
have taken on what Philip Larkin calls "a whiff of gown-and-bands
and organ-pipes and myrrh", and take their place around our festive
table where children listen, ready to carry them on to the next
generation and beyond.
When we sing our favourite carols at Christmas, we may think
that we are taking part in a long, unbroken, and unchanging
tradition. Behind them are many good stories and engaging
characters, from the greatest musicians and thinkers to shepherd
boys, choirboys, monks, and drunks.
The best characters are the songs themselves, absorbed from
their origins into the most profound and atavistic vein of
This is an edited extract from Christmas Carols: From
village green to church choir by Andrew Grant, published by
Profile Books at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9);