There is such rich variety in the music of Christmas. The carols we sing have come to us from different centuries, from different countries, and with many different musical styles. In “Lo, How A Rose Er’e Blooming,” I mentioned that when we sing these words or listen to these carols, we join with other believers who in other times and in other places worshiped God with the same music.
English-speaking countries are indebted to the work of several men during the nineteenth century who translated or compiled Christmas carols. In his preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, published in 1928, Percy Dearmer recounts the style and history of carols.
“Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. They are generally spontaneous and direct in expression, and their simplicity of form causes them sometimes to ramble on like a ballad. Carol literature and music are rich in true folk-poetry and remain fresh and buoyant even when the subject is a grave one. But they vary a good deal: some are narrative, some dramatic, some personal, a few are secular; and there are some which do not possess all the typical characteristics…
“Hilarity also has been forgotten, or obscured in the texts. The word ‘Carol’ has a dancing origin, and once meant to dance in a ring…
“The typical carol gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood and music that can be shared by all…”1
For many years there were various songs and carols in circulation, but Dearmer wrote that by the middle of the 1800s “the folk-carol was slowly dying.” A revival of Christmas carols began because:
“A very rare Swedish book had come into the possession of the editors of the Hymnal Noted of 1852, the Rev. J. M. Neale and the Rev. T. Helmore: it was called Piæ Cantiones, and was full of exquisite sixteenth-century tunes…Neale translated some of the carols or hymns therein, and in 1853 he and Helmore published Carols for Christmas-tide, twelve carols with music from the old book…Thus some of our finest carols both in words and music were given to the Church: the misfortune was that the traditional carols of this country were ignored, and their recovery was retarded…
“The second chapter of the revival in the nineteenth century opens in 1871 with the publication of forty-two Christmas Carols New and Old by the Rev. H. R. Bramley, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Dr. John Stainer, then organist of the college. The influence of this book was enormous: it placed in the hands of the clergy…a really practicable tool, which came into general use, and is still is use after nearly sixty years. The great service done by this famous collection was that it brought thirteen traditional carols, with their proper music, into general use at once…It is…mainly to Bramley and Stainer that we owe the restoration of the carol…”2
Look through the table of contents of Christmas Carols New and Old and you’ll see we’re still singing many of those carols.
Christmas carols vary greatly in musical style and lyrics had been changed or adapted, but when they sing about the Lord Jesus they have this in common: they are songs of hope and joy, because they are songs about God’s love.
Image: Christmas Carols New and Old from Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
1,2Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford University Press, London: 1928). via Christmas Carols New and Old.
The title of this post is from a line in The Wassail Song sung by carolers as they went from house to house.
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