Christmas Carols

singing-carolsFor many people, singing Christmas songs and carols is their favourite part of Christmas. It is a wonderful way of connecting with centuries of musical history and a great opportunity for a family sing-song.

Some carol facts…

The term ‘carol’ has its roots in an old medieval French word ‘carole’. One thousand years ago this was a lively dance in a ring with people singing, often with one person leading and the rest of the singers answering. One of our most popular carols has come down to us in this form, with its questions and answers and dancing rhythms –

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day, on Christmas day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three?…
Our saviour Christ and his lady…
And whither sailed those ships all three?…
O they sailed into Bethlehem…

Carols were very popular as dance songs from the 1150s to 1350s, after which their use expanded as processional songs during the festivals which occurred throughout the year, not just at Christmas. Sometimes they were to accompany religious mystery plays. The beautiful Coventry Carol dates from the 16th century and was traditionally performed as part of the Nativity play in Coventry. (It followed the angel’s announcement to Mary and Joseph that they must flee to Egypt.)

Lully, lulla, my little tiny child.
Bye, bye lully lullay

Throughout the centuries, Christmas songs have been sung by groups ‘wassailing’ or going from house to house to raise money or a tasty supper.

Carols and caroling became a popular courtly activity in Tudor times. The lovely three part carol Green Growth The Holly is said to have been written by Henry VIII.

Much of this music was passed down from one generation of singers and dancers to another and never written down. However, we can thank keen musical enthusiasts of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries for searching out, collecting and publishing tunes and texts that had been written down in the previous centuries. They wrote new words to old dance tunes and sometimes new tunes to old texts. Consequently many of our carols have very ancient roots.

While Shepherds Watched was very popular in the 18th century. The tune first appeared in 1592 in a book of psalms. The text was added in 1700 and a carol was born.

The Victorians were very keen on reviving the tradition of caroling and used many of the old tunes with new texts. Along with their newly invented Christmas cracker, Christmas tree and Christmas card, the Christmas carol became part of the seasonal family entertainment. Composers took advantage of its popularity and composed many new carols that we still sing today.

In 1853, J. M. Neale was given a rare copy of a 16th century collection of songs and he used one of the tunes (13th century Spring carol, Now Is The Time For Flowering) with new words for his now famous Good King Wenceslas.

The concept of the 9 lessons and carols Christmas Eve service was not born until 1880. (The Bishop of Truro drew up the format for a 10pm service on Christmas Eve – apparently with the purpose of keeping the men out of the pubs!)

350 years separate the tune and words of ‘Ding Dong Merrily On High’. The tune originated as a lively 16th century dance in which the women jumped up high into the air! (a ’Branle’) The words were written in the 20th century.

Last fact!

In Australia, one of our favourite carols has been revised to fit the Australian context…

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me: 12 parrots prattling, 11 numbats nagging, 10 lizards leaping, 9 wombats working, 8 dingoes digging, 7 possums playing, 6 brolgas dancing, 5 kangaroos, 4 koalas cuddling, 3 kookaburras laughing, 2 pink galahs, and an emu up a gum tree.

Try that on Christmas morning!

Guest Blog by Marion Shuster
BA hons (Cambridge) LRSM

Marion Shuster has been teaching music, conducting and performing locally for over 30 years. She currently has two choirs based in East Grinstead, the Greenstede Singers and Choirpower, as well as a busy teaching schedule.

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