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Saturday, 19 December 2009
Christmas Carols VI
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There are today carols for many of the great Feasts of the Church but by far and away most often we use the word to refer to the songs about Christ’s Incarnation which we sing at Christmas in Church – or privately. The English word ‘Carol’ derives from the Old French verb ‘caroller’ which, at the time it came into English, meant to dance a circle dance whilst singing or being sung to (and that French word is traceable to Ancient Greek dramatic roots). Circle dances are a very ancient pagan tradition and refer to the idea of the circle of life and the turning of the seasons – “...singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day...” as Longfellow so eloquently put it in his Carol which I discussed in yesterday's post.

That’s a neat way of summing things up because, as we all know, the world turns and the world changes. Carols have changed, too: not in their ported meanings or their symbolism but in their language and their musical styles. The language has often been updated, as has the music, and in no era was that a more common occurrence than in the Victorian in the UK.
 
Many Christmas festivities, and consequently much Christmas music, were banned under the dead-handed rule of the religious bigot Oliver Cromwell, and despite his rule over Britain being short the damage he did to our ancient traditions took until Victorian times to remedy. However, our Victorian ancestors set to the task of restoring our traditions as best they could with much glee and gusto and the survival of many of the Christmas Carols which we know and love today is solely due to the efforts of the peoples of that era to collect and revive as much of our culture as they could before it died out completely.
 
The words of many of the ancient Carols were revised and updated in that great imperial epoch. The tunes to which they were set were also collected, revised and updated. Amongst the many of those surviving which were rewritten and are still popular today one can find such much-loved gems as ‘Good Christian Men Rejoice’, ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’ and ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ which are all ancient Carols rewritten by the Victorians so as to be more understandable in modern times. Much of the original words and melodies are lost to us but the Victorian scholars collected and popularised that which remained. Analysis of the tunes and the words so collected indicate to experts today that much of the content of these collections is very old indeed and that the tunes may be, probably are in their original form, much older than Christianity itself. Consider, if you will, that the tune of the official National Anthem of the United Kingdom (“God save our gracious Queen...”) is reckoned by many experts to be at least two thousand years old, probably much older in its original form, and that that tune has served as the anthem for many different States down through the ages.
 
‘The Wassail Song’, which doesn’t really celebrate Christmas but the New Year, having but one scant reference to Christmas in the fifth stanza, is a prime example of the Victorian rewriting of the Yuletide Carols. This song was certainly known in Shakespearean times and was already considered to be very old then:
 
Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbours' children
Whom you have seen before
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Good master and good mistress,
As you sit beside the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who wander in the mire.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year

We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a cheese,
And of your Christmas loaf.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.
 
The tune, judging by its intervals, is extremely ancient and the words refer to a tradition which I detailed here last year. It was collected and popularised by the Victorians but wassailing is a pagan tradition which was continued on these Islands by the Saxons who brought it from the European mainland and Heaven alone knows how old it, that tradition, might actually be: some experts reckon on three to five thousand years old.
 
However, let us return to the Christmas Carol. By the time Victoria ascended the Thrones of Britain in 1837AD the ancient Christmas Carols were only being sung in the more isolated rural parishes of Britain – and often in a much-debased form from the originals. We owe it to the great and painstaking Victorian collectors that we have today some semblance of our ancient Christmas Carols which we can still all sing and enjoy. Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840AD allowed the Prince Consort to re-energise the celebration of Christmas in Britain and inspired the great collectors of our ancient lore and lays to even greater efforts. Without the efforts of those Victorian scholars and collectors we would have lost such Christmas Carols as ‘The First Noel’, ‘The Cherry Tree’ and, of course, ‘My Dancing Day’, the Carol that the late Margiad Evans (Peggy Whistler) references in her great novel ‘Country Dance’ (the Welsh ‘Wuthering Heights’ as some term it); and we would have lost the ‘Sans Day’ Carol from Cornwall, as well.
 
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Victorian travelling, erudite scholars who made it their business to preserve our culture and to educate us all about our past. Without them our modern Christmas would be a small thing indeed for it would lack our traditional music and we would be even more susceptible than we are to the fell influences of pagan Islam. Those scholars and collectors not only preserved the words and the music, they also understood the ancient meanings and the symbolism and they did their best to pass all that on to us.
 
I cannot leave this discussion without mentioning some few, so very few, of the great Victorian collectors. There’s A.H. Bullen, who published his Carols and Poems in 1885; and W.H. Husk who’s Songs of the Nativity was printed in 1868. Then there’s E.F. Rimbault’s Little Book of Carols published in 1846 (and his further collections of 1863 and 1865). There’s also the great Dr. John Stainer’s (with H.R. Bramley) Christmas Carols New and Old from 1871; and, of course, R. Vaughan Williams’ Eight Traditional English Carols, Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire. To these few, and many, many unsung others, we owe a huge debt of gratitude, for without them there would be no modern Christmas Carol and the Christmas celebration we know and love today would lack its rich music and many of our Christmas musical traditions.
 
However, as they collected from the past, our age was in gestation and we were about to add, as we were born and reformed the world, to the great tradition of Christmas Carolling.
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Posted on 12/19/2009 9:14 AM by John M. Joyce
Comments
19 Dec 2009
Send an emailJohn M. J.

Mary, thank you for your kind compliment. I love Carols and I love singing them - as a youngster I was member of a Cathedral Choir and developed there a huge love of all Church music but Christmas-time and its Carols ended up being my favourite time in the Calendar.

Paul, I agree with Mary: that's hilarious. Thank you muchly for that! I'm glad that you, and I hope many others, have enjoyed this series of short posts so far. More to come - leastways as long as the electricity stays on!



19 Dec 2009
Send an emailMary Jackson

John, thanks very much for a fascinating account by someone who obviously loves his subject.

Paul, that's hilarious.



19 Dec 2009
Paul Blaskowicz

John: Thank you for the musicological, historical and linguistic treats about the English heritage of Christmas carols.  If a relentless information campaign was waged day and night in all the languages of the benighted umma, interspersed  with wonderful music - religious and classical - maybe one day  future generations would see and hear massed choirs singing around the once-curséd, exorcised spot where the black stone once stood! 

In the meantime you might find this enjoyable:Oy, Holy Night