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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/Christmas carols




"What sweeter music can we bring
Than a Carol for to sing
The Birth of this our Heavenly King?"


Some twenty or thirty years ago we should scarcely have dared to predict the resuscitation of the Christmas Carol. At that time the custom of singing carols had become little better than a respectable scheme for raising money, the miserable street-singer drawling out, in lamentable and tuneless strains (in hope of pecuniary recompense), the "good tidings," that "our Saviour He was born on Christmas Day in the morning." In villages and quiet country places, it is true, carols in some form or other have never been allowed to die out, and appear to have been cherished with no little reverence as one of the rarest delights of the "blessed Christmas Tide."

Hone, in his "Ancient Mysteries," A.D. 1823, says:—"The melody of 'God rest you, merry gentlemen,' delighted my childhood; and I still listen with pleasure to the shivering carolist's evening chaunt towards the clean kitchen window, decked with holly, the flaming fire showing the whitened hearth, and reflecting gleams of light from the surfaces of the kitchen utensils."

And Irving, too, in the "Sketch Book," A.D. 1850, describes, in his customary happy way, the carolling of village children on Christmas morning:—"While I lay musing on my pillow I heard the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door, and a whispering consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chaunted forth an old Christmas Carol."

The sheets of carols, embellished with rude cuts of the Nativity, and other events in the Life of our Blessed Saviour, still issued from Clerkenwell, the Seven Dials, and provincial towns, are becoming scarcer every year, and the race of street carolists, there can be little doubt, will, in a few years, become altogether extinct.

It is curious to note the remarkable way in which old conventional forms and traditions have been retained in the broadsides annually hawked about the streets; the arrangement of subjects, borders, and general treatment, being in many cases decidedly mediæval.

The selection of subjects is not always remarkable for aptness, nor their execution for particular brilliancy. Upon one carol sheet in my possession occur representations of "The Crucifixion," the "Return of the Soldier," the "Celebration of the Eucharist," and Two Lovers walking in green bowers, while a Fairy points to a Temple wherein the Matrimonial Alliance may be perfected. Upon another is shown a Village, a young man borne to the skies in the arms of some ethereal beauty (by sprites of all sizes and shapes), our Blessed Lord instituting the Holy Eucharist, a Family Party, and a Deathbed. Again, we have the Seven Ages, boys playing at marbles, girls gathering flowers, fiends seizing a murderer, and a congregation at worship, to illustrate "favourite carols for the present year."

The mental powers of the printer are again taxed to invent "catching" titles for his publications; and we have "The Christmas Holly," "The Star of Bethlehem," "Christmas Mirth," "Blossoms of Holiness," "The Heavenly Garland," "The Select Carolist," "The Morning Star," "The Golden Chaplet," and "The Gem, a variety of excellent carols."

The design and execution of the woodcuts are sometimes highly ludicrous; and when coloured in the "approved style," they are apt to provoke mirth rather than devotion. In many instances the ancient method of representing several subjects in one picture is preserved, e.g., the Adoration of the Angels, the Visit of the Shepherds (with regular pastoral staves), and the Magi, all occur in one engraving, the Star appearing in three places. Hone mentions the case of a printer of Moorfields, who placed so high a value on his woodcuts, that he positively refused to give up the blocks without a strict reservation of the copyright of the designs. For the amusement of his readers, Hone annexes four of these rude pictures.

It is to Mr. Davies Gilbert, the well-known antiquary, that we are primarily indebted for the revival of Christmas carolling. In A.D. 1822 Gilbert published the music of twelve favourite carols preserved in the west of England, and in the following year enlarged the collection to twenty. Mr. W. Sandys, F.S.A., brought out in A.D. 1833 a set of fourscore carols, with seventeen melodies, and some French Noëls. This valuable work, containing an abundant store of information on all customs and traditions of Yule-tide, has been since supplemented by a book by the same author on "Christmas; its History, Festivities, and Carols." Mr. Wright's reprint of mediæval and later carols, published for the Percy Society, with Dr. Rimbault's "Little Book," Mr. Parker's "Sixteen Carols," Mr. Chappell's "National Airs," and other similar works, led the public to appreciate the time-honoured custom, and to comprehend more clearly the rich store-house of melody and poetry contained in these delightsome reliques of the Christmas of our forefathers. Publishers became cognizant of a real want of carol music suited for actual performance by choirs and families; and in the year 1850 Mr. Novello produced a collection of carols at a low rate, arranged for four voices by the Rev. T. Helmore, Priest of the Chapel Royal, with words, principally in imitation of the original, by the Rev. Dr. Neale. Messrs. Masters issued a collection of twelve carols, with original music by Mr. Hine and Dr. Gauntlett; and Dr. Gauntlett himself brought out a book containing some very good specimens of Christmas melodies. And now collections of carols are every year multiplying, the advertisement sheets of musical and other papers testifying to the universal demand for suitable music for Christmas time.

The majority of modern carols evince in a marked manner a desire to imitate the honest sincerity and piety exhibited in the productions of our ancestors. The men of the nineteenth century are fain to admit that better means for attracting the ear and ravishing the hearts of the poor and simple, can scarcely be employed than those used by the men of old. The quaint expressions, the homely recital of Scripture narrative, and withal the soothing and plaintive strains of pure English melody, strike home at once to the hearts of the humble and devout observers of the blessed coming of our Redeemer in the Flesh. I propose to give a few specimens of ancient and modern carols.

The first example is a translation from the pen of Dr. Neale, and is taken from the collection published by Messrs. Novello, being with the refrain, "In Bethlehem," in strict accordance with the original:—


From church to church the bells' glad tidings run;
A Virgin hath conceiv'd, and borne a son
In Bethlehem.


And angel-hosts, the midnight of His birth,
Sang "Glory be to God, and peace on Earth,"
In Bethlehem.


"Now go we forth, and see this wondrous thing,"
The shepherds said, and seek the new-born king
In Bethlehem.


The star went leading on from east to west:
The wise men follow'd, till they saw it rest
In Bethlehem.


Their frankincense, and myrrh, and gold, they bring,
To hail the God, the Mortal, and the King,
In Bethlehem.


With threefold gifts, the Threefold God three praise,
Who thus vouchsaf'd the sons of man to raise,
In Bethlehem.


The above is said to be of the eleventh century. In many cases, Latin is intermixed with the English, as in the subjoined example from a manuscript of the sixteenth century, preserved in the British Museum. The spelling is modernized:—


Jhesu Fili Virginis,
Miserere nobis.


Jesu of a Maid Thou wouldest be born,
To save mankind that was forlorn,
And all for our sins,
Miserere nobis.


Angels there were, mild of mood,
Sung to that sweet Food,
With joy and bliss,
Miserere nobis.


In a cratch was that Child laid,
Both ox and ass with Him played,
With joy and bliss,
Miserere nobis.


Then for us He shed His blood,
And also He died on the Rood,
And for us I wit,
Miserere nobis.


And then to hell He took the way,
To ransom them that there lay,
With joy and bliss,
Miserere nobis.


And again from the Harleian MSS.:—


paremus canticum, excelsis gloria.


When Christ was born of Mary free,
In Bethlem, in that fair city,
Angels sung there with mirth and glee,
In excelsis gloria.


Herdsmen beheld these angels bright,
To them appeared with great light,
And said, "God's Son is born this night,"
In excelsis gloria.


This King is come to save mankind,
As in Scripture we find,
Therefore this song have we in mind,
In excelsis gloria.


Amongst the earliest specimens of carols are those for bringing in the boar's head.

The boar's head was the first dish served up at ancient feasts, and was carried in with great solemnity, dressed with garlands. Flourishes of trumpets and singing of carols accompanied the pageant. The custom of bringing in the boar's head is still observed in great houses, and (as has been stated over and over again) at Queen's College, Oxford, where upon Christmas night the precentor and choir sing a modernized version of Wynkin de Worde's carol.

The accompanying is from a sixteenth century MS.:—


Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
Tidings good I think to tell.


The boar's head that we bring here
Betokeneth a Prince without peer,
Is born this day to buy us dear


A boar is a sovereign beast,
And acceptable in every feast;
So might this lord be to most and least,


This boar's head we bring with song,
In worship of Him that thus sprung
Of a Virgin, to redress all wrong:


There is a much earlier example given by Sir Frederic Madden in the "Reliquæ Antiquæ."

The word Nowell, or Noël, which occurs very frequently in old carols, is by many supposed (and with good reason) to be derived from natalis, the birthday of our blessed Lord. This word was used as a cry of joy, and was "sung at Angers during the eight days preceding Christmas." The Portuguese, Irish, and Welsh terms for Christmas evidently come from this source. But on the other hand, Nowell is very frequently used in the sense of news or tidings, and as has been elsewhere stated, was a "joyful exclamation not absolutely confined to Christmas." The following lines, from "Ane compendious booke of Godly and Spiritual Sangs," seem to strengthen this interpretation:—


I come from Hevin to tell
The best Nowellis that ever befell:
To you this tythings trew I bring.


And again in a fifteenth century carol:—


Gabryell of hygh degree,
Came down from the Trenyte,
To Nazareth in Galilee,
Came down from the TrenWith Nova.


Christmas Evergreens, the Holly and the Ivy, form the subject of many an old carol. The Holly Carol, most popular and familiar to us, details at length the various symbolical references this favoured evergreen bears to the Incarnation of our LORD, e.g.:


The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesu Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.


The editor of "Christmas with the Poets" remarks:—"Several carols relating to the holly and the ivy convey the idea that these two favourite Christmas evergreens had each their partizans, who espoused their several causes as warmly as they supported the claims of tho rival houses of York and Lancaster, whose struggle for pre-eminence was waging at the time these carols were at the height of their popularity."

I give an ancient holly and ivy carol from Mr. Wright's second book of carols:—


Holly and Ivy made a great party,
Who would have the mastery
In lands where they go.


Then spake Holly, I am fierce and jolly,
I will have the mastery
In lands where they go.


Then spake Ivy, I am loud and proud,
And I will have the mastery
In lands where they go.


Then spake Holly, and set him down on his knee,
I pray thee, gentle Ivy,
Assay me no villany
In lands where we go.


One of the carols frequently printed on the cheap broadsides is that of Dives and Lazarus:—


As it fell out upon a day,
Rich Dives made a feast,
And he invited all his friends
And gentry of the best.


Then Lazarus laid him down and wept,
And down at Dives' door,
Some meat, some drink, brother Dives,
Bestow upon the poor.


Thou art none of my brother Lazarus,
That is begging at my gate,
No meat, no drink will I give thee,
For Jesus Christ His sake.


Then Dives sent out his hungry dogs
To worry poor Lazarus away:
They had not power to bite one bit,
But licked his sores away.


Now it fell out upon a day,
Lazarus sickened and died,
There came two angels down from Heaven
Thereto his soul to guide.


As it fell out upon a day,
Dives sickened and died,
There came two serpents out of hell,
Thereto his soul to guide.


Rise up, rise up, brother Dives,
And come along with me,
There is a place prepared in hell,
From which thou canst not flee.


Another species of carol is that for bringing in the wassel. This term, derived from the Saxon, and signifying "Be in health," occurs in the early Anglo-Norman-French carol preserved in the British Museum, and translated by Mr. Douce. The wassel was introduced with considerable state originally upon Twelfth Night, but in course of time New Year's Eve came in for a share of these festivities; and later still, the bowl was carried round from house to house by young damsels with songs, the bearers being repaid for their trouble by some gratuity. The most common of wassel songs is that given in Brand's "Antiquities":—


Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white, our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of a maplin tree,
We be good fellows all—I drink to thee.


Here's to Dobbin, and to his right ear,
God send to our master a happy new year:
A happy new year as e'er he did see—
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.


Here's to Smiler, and to her right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie;
As good Christmas pie as e'er I did see—
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.


Here's to Fillpail, and to her long tail,
God send our master as never may fail
Of a cup of good beer; I pray you draw near,
And our jolly wassail it's then you shall hear.


Come, butler, come bring us a bowl of the best,
And I'll hope your soul in Heaven will rest,
Hut if you do bring us a bowl of the small,
Then down may fall butler, and bowl, and all.


I venture to quote the beautiful carol by that prince of Christmas poets, Robert Herrick:—



2.  1.Tell us, thou cleere and heavenly tongue,
2.  Where is the Babe but lately sprung?
2.  Lies He the lillie-banks among?


2.  Or say, if this new Birth of ours
2.  Sleeps, laid within some ark of flowers,
2.  Spangled with dew-light; thou canst cleere
2.  All doubts, and manifest the where.


2.  3.Declare to us, bright Star, if we shall seek
2.  Him in the morning's blushing cheek,
2.  Or search the beds of spices through,
2.  To find Him out?


Star.find HimNo this ye need not do;
2.  But only come and see Him rest,
2.  A princely Babe in's Mother's brest.


Chorus.He's seen! He's seen! Why then around
2.  Let's kisse the sweet and holy ground;
2.  And all rejoyce that we have found
2.  A King, before conception, crown'd.


2.  4.Come, then, come then, and let us bring,
2.  Unto our prettie twelfth-tide King,
2.  Each one his severall offering.


Chorus.And when night comes, wee'l give Him
2.  And that His treble honours may be seen,
2.  Wee'l chuse him King, and make His Mother


The custom of using carols in church at Christmas time has been retained in Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man, and the west and north of England, and has been in many places revived with the greatest success. In good truth, the Christmas carol bids fair to be re-instated with full honours to its orthodox position among the festivities of Yule Tide. The annexed paragraph from a Hawaiian journal will moreover testify that the primitive and godly practice is not now confined to our own England:—


On Christmas Eve (at Honolulu, Sandwich Islands) we had a midnight service, in the native language, at which their majesties (King Kamehamèha and Queen Emma) attended. . . . Afterwards, we went through the principal streets singing carols. Forty torchlights, fifteen feet high, formed of the stem of an oleaginous nut peculiar to the islands, were borne by native men, and completely illuminated the streets. We stopped at intervals, and sang some of the old English carols. . . . The king joined in the tenor heartily.


One more example, and I have done. May our good friends who with loving hearts celebrate the "Holy Tide of Christmas," not omit from their catalogue of festivities the hearty and genuine old carol.

The following is extracted from "Antient Christmas Carols," published by Novello, and is written by Mr. Morris:—


Masters in this hall,
Hear ye news to-day,
Brought from over sea,
And ever I you pray.
Chorus.Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
Nowell! sing we clear!
Holpen are all folk on earth,
Born is God's Son so dear:
Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
Nowell! sing we loud!
God to-day hath poor folk rais'd,
And cast adown the proud.


Going over the hills,
Through the milk-white snow,
Heard I ewes bleat
While the wind did blow.
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


Shepherds many an one
Sat among the sheep,
No man spake more word
Than they had been asleep.
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


Quoth I, "Fellows mine,
Why this guise sit ye?
Making but dull cheer,
Shepherds though ye be?"
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


Quoth these fellows then,
"To Bethlem Town we go,
To see a mighty Lord
Lie in manger low."
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


"How name ye this Lord,
Shepherds?" then said I,
"Very God," they said,
"Come from heaven high."
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


Then to Bethlem town
We went two and two,
And in a sorry place
Heard the oxen low.
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


Therein did we see
A sweet and goodly May,
And a fair old man,
Upon the straw she lay.
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


And a little child
On her arm had she,
"Wot ye Who This is?"
Said the hinds to me.
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


Ox and ass Him know,
Kneeling on their knee,
Wondrous joy had I
This little Babe to see.
Chorus. Nowell, &c.


This is Christ the Lord,
Masters be ye glad!
Christmas is come in,
And no folk should be sad.
Chorus. Nowell, &c.

Edmund Sedding.