Nuts & Bolts: Christmas Carol

We may enjoy singing them round a gaudily-lit Christmas tree, but once carols were considered so shocking priests and kings tried to ban them. Roderick Swanston unfolds their story.

Christmas may be coming, the goose getting fat, and we may be preparing to put our credit cards in the old man’s hat, but one thing is certain: at this time of year most of us will be singing, or listening to, carols, whether around the streets or in the candle-lit darkness of a local church or cathedral. But what exactly is a carol?

Once in Royal David’s City, for instance, is not a true carol, but a Christmas hymn, the words of which were published in 1848 by the Irish hymn-writer Mrs C F Alexander (1818-1895); they originally appeared in her Hymns for Little Children as a kind of sermon on the text from the Creed, ‘who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary’. The tune was written by the London organist and composer Dr H J Gauntlett (1805-1876), published separately in 1849, and then in a collection of settings of Mrs Alexander’s words in 1858.

True carols are much older, and their origins more pagan and secular than later Christmas hymns. Properly to qualify, a true carol dates from before Henry VIII’s English Reformation of the 1520s and ’30s.

Pagan roots of the carol, in Shropshire!
How and where carols originated is not easy to determine. The word ‘carole’ (dance-song) was imported from France, but probably before that was derived from the Greek word ‘chorus’. However, although the term may have come from France as early as the years just after the Norman invasion of 1066, William the Conqueror’s knights recorded that in Shropshire (and elsewhere) they found groups of women singing and performing, to their minds, rather suggestive round-dances at major religious festivals, especially at Easter and in the autumn. These were almost certainly earlier forms of carols, and were part of a pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon tradition. These dance-songs were most likely to have solo verses, sung standing still, with choral refrains sung while the participants held hands and danced ‘on ring’. Records show they were most often performed in the vicinity of churches but not inside; in time they were disapproved of by priests and monks, not least because their verbal imagery was frequently only questionably Christian.

Over the years these dance-songs absorbed many newer influences including those from the Provençal troubadours in the twelfth century and the Italian lauda in the thirteenth, in which century they were adapted and used for evangelical purposes by itinerant friars. Hence the rather curious imagery of such carols as The Holly and the Ivy or Ivy is good and glad to see; ostensibly pagan nature-symbols, originally used in amorous games where ‘holly’ represented man, ‘ivy’ woman, were transformed into Christian images. Some carols came from medieval mystery plays performed on the steps of great cathedrals: hence their blend of liturgical Latin and secular English, as in Angelus ad virginem, which is mentioned in the ‘Miller’s Tale’ from the poet Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Angelus ad virginem was eventually translated into – at the time – idiomatic English as Gabriel fram evene king.

Almost no music or texts from before the fourteenth century have survived, but from circumstantial evidence we can be certain that not only did carols remain popular and associated with dancing, but were much favoured by those who could not read. This is clear from such works as the Red Book of Ossory, a collection of carol-like poems from the 1360s designed to steer impressionable clerics away from the corrupting secularity of many existing carols. Some of the new poems were simply new words fitted to older tunes, thus rescuing popular melodies for legitimate worship. Some carols, moreover, eventually found their way into church services as processional hymns on great occasions.

A burst of carolling creativity
The heyday of surviving carols is the fifteenth and early sixteenth century when England boasted an indigenous burst of creativity not paralleled anywhere else. Some carols sung at court eventually became set polyphonically and resembled motets, such as Ther is no rose; others retained their more demotic origins, and remained unharmonised and full of energetic dance-like rhythms.

Nowadays carols are almost universally associated with Christmas, but this was not always so. Many surviving fifteenth-century carols are about the story of the Passion, such as From stormy windes by Turges, and some were for a secular feast such as The Boar’s Head. Some carols celebrated political occasions, such as the Agincourt carol. Many concerned that favourite subject of the late Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary. The earliest printed collection of carols comes from 1521, but this was almost at the end of the life of the traditional carol. Henry VIII’s reformers disapproved of carols as they were associated too much with the old worship they were anxious to replace. Later Puritans found the pagan overtones and Latin lines too much to tolerate, so they banned carols.

The Victorian ‘invention’ of Christmas
Banning, however, did not destroy, and in The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith notes that parishioners ‘kept up the Christmas carol’. The nineteenth-century celebration of Christmas, encouraged by Prince Albert and his memories of Germany, stressed the more homely images of families and children, as well as good food and presents. The Victorian revival of Christmas led first to creating Christmas hymns, such as Once in Royal David’s City, as already mentioned. These developments happily led to the revival of interest in traditional carols, in large part brought about by Dean Milner White’s devising of a service of nine lessons and carols to be sung on Christmas Eve in King’s College, Cambridge, and then by the publication of The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928. even so, the polished sophistication of the presentation and performance of carols today is quite a far cry from the Shropshire round-dances of 1,000 years ago.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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