Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Here We Come a-Caroling

First Nowell stainerby Maria Grace

 The Start of Caroling
People have used songs and music as a part of celebration for as long as we have recorded history. The word carol comes from Latin the words meaning sing and joy. Thus carols are songs of joy.

The songs we know as Christmas carols have both sacred and secular roots. Some began as hymns of the church. Da, puer, plectrum (Of the Father's Love Begotten) written in the 3rd century by Aurelius Prudentius, is thought to be the oldest documented Christmas carol. Sacred carols continued to be written and sung throughout the middle ages. A chaplain in Shropshire noted twenty-five 'caroles of Christmas' in 1426.

Secular celebratory carols have an even longer history, well established in the British Isles by the time of Christianity. These songs were incorporated into rites that marked the arrival of each new season and integrated into observances of Michaelmas, Christmas, Easter and Mid-Summer Day.

By the 17th century, carols fell out of favor for most celebrations, except Christmas. Many of the songs retained their secular, even profane and sacrilegious nature. Consequently, when Cromwell came to power in the mid 1600’s, carols were strictly forbidden, as was any celebration of Christmas.
The Christmas carol
During the restoration of Charles II, carol singing was embraced once more. During the 18th century, the lyrics of Christmas carols became more decorous and gentile. They even became popular among the upper classes. Families sang carols in their homes and religious-themed carols were sung in the church.

Caroling and Wassailing

The practice of going door to door singing carols was known in the time of Shakespeare. Groups of usually lower class men went singing from house to house and remained until someone paid them for the efforts. Payment was more likely to make them go away rather than in appreciation of their songs.

By the end of the 18th century, wassailing became less about outright begging and more about charity. Groups of working class men and women would go house to house looking for those with a candle in the window to signal they were welcome. If welcomed, they would sing and often receive coins, wassail, and food for their efforts. During the Regency, groups of carolers from the local village often ended their evening of caroling at the local land owners manor house. Typically they would sing for the family and be treated to victuals and libations (frequently in the form of wassail) and a warm fire.

In some villages, people joined together to sing carols from the church towers. Broad-sheets of the most popular carols were printed to assist in the singing. At times these public celebrations could become boisterous.

What carols might have been sung

Carols sung while going house to house included both secular and sacred songs. Some of the secular songs are still familiar today, including: Deck the Halls, Here We Come a-Wassailing, We Wish you a Merry Christmas and The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Carol hymns hat might be familiar to today’s carol singers include: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Night (written by Nahum Tate, published in 1702 ), Adestes Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) published in France in 1760 and translated into English in 1841, Joy to the World published by Isaac Watts in 1719 (traditional melody written 1836), Hark the Herald Angels Sing written by Charles Wesley in 1739 (traditional melody written by Mendohlsson in 1840), Angels from the Realms of Glory by James Montgomery in 1816 (melody written in 1867.) The First Noel dates from the 18th century as a traditional Cornish carol and even older, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, whose lyrics found are found in 17th century texts. 

ChristmasCarolsNewAndOldAs I was researching this article, I found an original text: Ancient Christmas Carols with the Tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England from 1822 which included both lyrics and music. My youngest son was so thrilled with the find that he transcribed the music for two of these into a program to play and record the carols for you. You’ll have to imagine the words in your head though, as you definitely don’t want me singing along to these!

Here are the lyrics and music for two of them.

Whilst Shepherds watched their flocks by night

Whilst Shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground'
The Angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone all round
Fear no, said he, for might dread
Has seized their troubled mind;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
To you in David's town this day
Is born of David's line,
A Savior which is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign
The Heav'nly babe you there shall find
To human view display'd'
All mean wrapp'd in swaddling bands
And in a manger laid.
Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God and thus
Addressed their joyful song:
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace;
Good-will henceforth from Heaven to men,
Begin and never cease.

Click here to listen to what it may have sounded like:

The Lord at first did Adam make

The Lord at first did Adam make
Out of the dust and clay,
And in his nostrils breathed life,
E' en as the Scriptures. say.
And then in Eden’s Paradise
He placed him to dwell,
That he within it should remain
To dress and keep it well.
Now let good Christians all begin
An holy life to live,
And to rejoice and merry be,
For this is Christmas Eve.
Now let good Christians all begin
An holy life to live,
And to rejoice and merry be,
For this is Christmas Eve.

Click here to listen to what it may have sounded like:



 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn and Remember the PastClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. WOW ... so interesting, and thanks for the recordings

  2. Fascinating! Thank you and your son for this beautiful post !

  3. I learned a lot from this. I've never really thought before about the history of caroling. I love most of the carols I've heard and wish I heard more of them these days.


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