Christmas carols: the history behind 9 festive favourites

For many, Christmas is not complete without listening to the atmospheric and angelic sound of carols. Here, journalists Alexandra Coghlan and Eugene Byrne investigate the origins of nine festive favourites

Three medieval carol singers, image dated 1911. (Photo by Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

Christmas carols were mostly a Victorian tradition along with trees, crackers and cards. Here, Eugene Byrne and Alexandra Coghlan explain why the popularity of Silent Night has never faded, why there’s always a place for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and why the British fondness of Good King Wenceslas has not yet subsided…

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1

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Alexandra Coghlan: Of all the Christmas carols we sing today, none presents more of a challenge than The Twelve Days of Christmas, with its baffling list of lyrics. What exactly are we to make of this aviary of birds – the swans, geese, doves, hens and calling birds – and what on earth is a partridge (strictly a ground bird) doing up a pear tree? The origins of the carol make things a little clearer. Historians generally agree that the verse first evolved as a festive memory game. The list of objects or animals grows with each verse and forfeits are imposed for forgetting one.
But that still leaves us with the problem of the partridge. While the English partridge is a creature of fields and moors, its French cousin is apparently more likely to find itself up a tree. And if the partridge really is French then it would be called une perdrix. Correctly pronounced ‘pere-dree’, suddenly this word sounds an awful lot like that pear tree. Could it, perhaps, just be an elaborate international game of Chinese whispers that has left us with a partridge stuck forever in a misheard pear tree?

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Although Christmas was celebrated in song in the Middle Ages, most carols in use now are less than 200 years old. Only a handful, such as I Saw Three Ships or the decidedly pagan-sounding The Holly and the Ivy, remind us of more ancient yuletides. Carols fell from favour in England after the Reformation because of their frivolity and were rarely sung in churches until the 1880s when EW  Benson, Bishop of Truro (later Archbishop of Canterbury) drew up the format for the Nine Lessons and Carols service, which has remained in use ever since.

One interpretation of the carol places its origin in the 16th century. The list of bizarre gifts given by the carol author’s ‘true love’ becomes a secret code for Catholics – whose religion had to be practised in secret after the Reformation – to share their beliefs. So the ‘true love’ becomes God himself and the partridge Jesus Christ. The ‘two turtle doves’ are the old and new testaments, ‘three French hens’ the Trinity, ‘four calling birds’ are the four Gospels, all the way through to ‘twelve drummers drumming’ – the twelve points of the apostles’ creed. If you were a Tudor child, wouldn’t you much rather recite this than your catechism?
2

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

AC: What’s interesting about this catchy little carol are the customs it reveals. Both wassailing and mumming were still going strong under the Tudor monarchs, with carollers and players going from door to door performing. It was terribly bad luck not to reward their efforts with food and drink, including the ‘figgy pudding’ – an early version of what we now know as Christmas pudding.
Three young carol singers. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Three young carol singers. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
3

Deck the Halls

AC: One popular 16th-century song was the carol we know today as Deck the Halls. Back then it was a favourite Welsh song, originally titled Nos Galan. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it acquired Christmassy words and became part of our own festivities. In its earliest form, Deck the Halls was just a folk song, but one with some rather naughty words. Translated directly, the Welsh text reads something like this:
Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la 
Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la
Oh! how blessed are the blisses, Words of love, and mutual kisses, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la 
These words would not have suited the prim Victorians, so when Thomas Oliphant came to write an English text for the melody in the 1860s he started from scratch, co-opting the dancing melody and lively ‘fa la la’ chorus for an altogether more innocent celebration of Christmas preparations.
A Christmas carols greeting card received 1893. (Photo by Amoret Tanner/Alamy Stock Photo)
A Christmas carols greeting card received 1893. (Photo by Amoret Tanner/Alamy Stock Photo)
4

The Holly and the Ivy

AC: Although this charming carol, based on an English folk tune, probably dates from the 17th century, its symbolism is far older. Both the festivals of Saturnalia and Yule placed great emphasis on evergreens. The Romans would exchange boughs of holly and ivy with their friends during the festival, while both the Scandinavians and the Anglo-Saxon pagans would decorate their homes with the evergreens they saw as symbols of eternal life.
So try as Christian carol writers might to impose their own symbols on the plants – the red holly berry as Jesus’s blood, the white holly flower his shroud – they have to work hard to displace earlier layers of meaning. Some think there’s a further secret layer of meaning to the carol. Is the holly, with its phallic prickles, a symbol of the masculine, and the clinging ivy of the feminine? English courtiers were fond of such hidden language and holly-and-ivy carols could have formed the basis of courting games.
5

Silent Night

AC: A firm favourite throughout the 19th century was the lovely Silent Night. Schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr first performed the carol in the church of St Nikola in Oberndorf, Austria, in its original German (Stille Nacht) on Christmas Eve 1818.
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Legends attached to this timeless carol persist, to a point where it’s hard to dig out the truth from among them. One charming tale tells of mice chewing through vital sections of St Nikola’s organ, leaving the church without music at Christmas. The resourceful young teacher and priest, so the story goes, stepped in to save the service by composing a simple carol that could be sung with just guitar accompaniment.
Eugene Byrne: Its fame eventually spread (allegedly it has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects) and it famously played a key role in the unofficial truce in the trenches in 1914 because it was one of the only carols that both British and German soldiers knew.
6

Good King Wenceslas

EB: The Reverend Doctor Neale was a high Anglican whose career was blighted by suspicion that he was a crypto-Catholic, so as warden of Sackville College – an almshouse in East Grinstead – he had plenty of time for study and composition. Most authorities deride his words as “horrible”, “doggerel” or “meaningless”, but it has withstood the test of time. The tune came from a Scandinavian song that Neale found in a rare medieval book that had been sent to him by a friend who was British ambassador in Stockholm.

There really was a Wenceslas – Vaclav in Czech – although he was Duke of Bohemia, rather than a king. Wenceslas (907–935) was a pious Christian who was murdered by his pagan brother Boleslav; after his death a huge number of myths and stories gathered around him. Neale borrowed one legend to deliver a classically Victorian message about the importance of being both merry and charitable at Christmas. Neale also wrote two other Christmas favourites: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1851) and Good Christian Men, Rejoice (1853).

7

Once in Royal David’s City

EB: Cecil Frances Humphreys was born in Dublin to a comfortable Anglican family. In 1848 she published Hymns for Little Children, a book of verse explaining the creed in simple and cheerful terms and which gave us three famous hymns. So to the question who made the world, the answer was All Things Bright and Beautiful. Children’s questions on the matter of death were answered with There is a Green Hill Far Away, while Once in Royal David’s City told them about where Jesus was born. The book was an instant hit and remained hugely popular throughout the 19th century.

The organist and composer Henry Gauntlett put music to it a year later and nowadays it traditionally opens the King’s College Cambridge Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Cecil threw herself into working for the sick and poor, turning down many requests to write more verse. Much of the proceeds from Hymns for Little Children went to building the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.

8

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

EB: Charles, the brother of Methodist founder John Wesley, penned as many as 9,000 hymns and poems, of which this is one of his best-known. It was said to be inspired by the sounds of the bells as he walked to church one Christmas morning and has been through several changes. It was originally entitled Hark How All the Welkin Ringswelkin being an old word meaning sky or heaven.

As with most of his hymns, Wesley did not stipulate which tune it should be sung to, except to say that it should be “solemn”. The modern version came about when organist William Hayman Cummings adopted it to a tune by German composer Felix Mendelssohn in the 1850s. Mendelssohn had stipulated that the music, which he had written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press and which he described as “soldier-like and buxom”, should never be used for religious purposes.

9

God rest you merry, Gentlemen

EB: This is thought to have originated in London in the 16th or 17th centuries before running to several different versions with different tunes all over England. The most familiar melody dates back to at least the 1650s when it appeared in a book of dancing tunes. It was certainly one of the Victorians’ favourites.

If you want to impress people with your knowledge (or pedantry), then point out to them that the comma is placed after the “merry” in the first line because the song is enjoining the gentlemen (possibly meaning the shepherds abiding in the fields) to be merry because of Christ’s birthday. It’s not telling “merry gentlemen” to rest!

Alexandra Coghlan is a music journalist and former Cambridge choral scholar. Eugene Byrne is an English freelance journalist and fiction writer.
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in December 2016. Eugene Byrne’s submissions were first published in the December 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine