The first Christmas carols to appear in English were in a 1426 work by John Awdley, who listed 25 “caroles of Cristemas”. Carols were sung by wassailers who went from house to house and also as part of mystery plays. The carols were often only loosely based on the Christmas story and considered entertainment more than a religious practice.
Here’s an example, “The Cherry Tree/10 Joys of Mary” performed by Nowell Sing We Clear, a group devoted to preserving these early Christmas carols. I’ve seen them and they put on a great show.
Here is a performance of the Coventry Carol by the Westminster Cathedral Choir. This is part of a 16th century mystery play, depicting the Massacre of the Innocents when Herod ordered all male infants in Bethlehem to be killed. It makes me cry, but I believe stories like these are an important reminder to be compassionate during this season.
Cromwell and the Puritans tried to suppress the singing of carols, but not surprisingly, did not succeed. Carol singing survived into “our” period and carols continued to be composed and recorded. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was first listed in a 1760 broadsheet and is probably older than that. Here’s a performance at King’s College, Cambridge.
By the Regency, many Christmas customs were considered rustic and weren’t practiced by the upper classes. Our Regency romance characters gathering around a Christmas tree to sing carols, though not impossible, wouldn’t have been the common thing. While Queen Charlotte did have a Christmas tree at Windsor in 1800, that custom and the singing of carols (especially in church) were more a Victorian thing.
But the process did begin during the Regency. Already, some people longed for simpler, bygone traditions. Some began to create collections of Christmas carols, Davies Gilbert with “Christmas Carols” published in 1822 and William Sandys with “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” published in 1833. During that period and later, old carols were revived and many new ones composed.
Here’s “Gaudete” performed by the John Brown University Cathedral Choir. “Gaudete” is from “Piae Cantiones”, a compilation of Finnish and Swedish sacred songs which was published in 1582 but only came to England in 1853. So it’s not Regency at all but I’m including it because I love it!
Another favorite of mine is “Masters in this Hall”. I thought it was older, being fooled by the fact that it is based on an old French dance tune, but the lyrics were written by William Morris in 1860.
What do you think of these? What are your favorite carols? How do you try to “unplug” Christmas?
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