Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, December, 2010)

[DISCLAIMER: This entry doesn't follow the usual Remembering The Old Songs template, but I found it interesting and decided to include it here. Bob sent the following disclaimer:
"I threw this together in almost no time -- it was looking as if I had a big hole in the December issue, so I grabbed the Oxford Book of Carols and a few other things on my shelf and slapped it together in about three hours. Then the hole proved smaller than I thought, so a whole bunch of stuff had to come out, which rather destroyed what little continuity it had."
I wouldn't mind being able to write failures like this.]

This is the time of year when everyone gets together to sing Christmas carols. But what is a Christmas carol? I've seen a surprising amount of misinformation on this point. This isn't the last word on the subject -- I threw it together in a couple of days. But maybe it will help a little.

For starters, Christmas song and carol are not synonyms. Of common Christmas songs, the one with the oldest roots may be the Veni Emmanuel, which J. M. Neale translated in the nineteenth century as O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The Latin goes back at least to the fifteenth century, and probably (based on the copyist's handwriting) to the thirteenth. Johnson's book suggests it goes back to the seventh century. But the Veni Emmanuel is not a carol, and never was; it is now used as a processional hymn.

The definition of a carol has nothing to do with Christmas; it is a form of dance song. The Oxford Book of Carols, p. v, declares:

The word carol has a dancing origin, and once meant to dance in a ring; it may go back, through the old French caroler and the Latin choraula, to Greek choraules, a flute-player for chorus dancing, and ultimately to the choros which was originally a circling dance and the origin of the Attic drama.

The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, p. 148, more cautiously defines the carol this way:

In common use, the name given to a type of simple, traditional, essentially rhythmic song.... Obscure in origin, the term has been conclusively traced only so far as the Old French carole.

A classical musician has another meaning. Grout, p. 153, would have us know:

Another form of English composition that flourished in the fifteenth century was the carol. Originally the carol, like the rondeau and ballata, was a monophonic dance song with alternating solo and chorus portions. By the fifteenth century it had become stylized as a setting in two or three (sometimes four) parts, or a religious poem in popular style, often on a subject of the Incarnation, and frequently written in a mixture of English and Latin rhyming verses.... The carols were not folk songs, but... [have] a distinctly popular character.

In other words, if a normal person might sing it, it isn't a carol. It's true that there were bilingual carols -- but, as the Oxford book points out on p. viii, the Latin was such as anyone could pick up in a Catholic service. Grout's definition points to pieces such as the Agincourt Carol mentioned below, but it's a technical term we can ignore.

There isn't even agreement on when the word carol started being used in English tradition. Chambers, p. 66, declares that:

The first mention of a carole appears to be in the Anglo-Norman Wace's account, about 1155, of King Arthur's wedding. Here the women carolent and the men behourdent, 'jesting' while they watch the performance.

But this is in Norman French, not English. The New Westminster Dictionary points to a piece from around 1350,
Honnde by hondde we shulle us take,
which certainly sounds like a dance, but it is less clear that it is a carol or was sung. It certainly isn't a Christmas carol.

One of the earliest carol scholars, Greene, came up with an even earlier piece, Merie Sungen the Muneches Bennen Ely (Merry Sang the Monks of Ely), which tells of King Canute (reigned 1016-1035), although the manuscript containing it is dated from around 1300. I frankly don't buy this; Merie Sungen is in Middle English, and Canute lived before Middle English existed.

The Oxford Book of Carols, p. vi, suggests that the carol form dates back to the fifteenth century -- in other words, about the same time that the traditional ballads started to be produced.

Some other candidates for the earliest carol include:

Note that, apart from the Golden Carol, none of these is associated with Christmas, although all but the Agincourt Carol are on Christian themes. This has continued through the ages: The Ritchie Family of Kentucky sang the May Day Carol. It has been suggested that one of my favorite melodies, My Dancing Day, is a combination of a secular dance song with a religious story.

Some carols aren't even Biblical. The well-known Cherry Tree Carol probably derives from the non-canonical (indeed, slightly heretical) Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew; the story it tells, believe it or not, is first found in the Quran! It is debatable whether The Carnal and the Crane can be called a carol, but it tells many apocryphal stories as well -- the roasted cock that crows before Herod to say that Jesus is born, the adoration of the beasts, the miraculous harvest that fools those who are chasing the infant Jesus. The Bitter Withy goes even more against modern attitudes, for it shows the young Jesus miraculously drowning other children who taunted him.

There was another sort of folk Christmas song known in Britain starting before the Middle Ages: The Wassail. Wassail is a worn-down form of Was hael, a wish for good health. During Yule, Wassailers would go about seeking food and drink. You've probably heard Here We Come A-Wassailing. There are also Wassail songs such as the Somerset, Gloucester, and even Kentucky Wassails. Many of these probably go back to a single original, but they have drifted far.

The Oxford Book of Carols says that the first carols to be printed were published by Wynken de Worde (the apprentice of England's first printer Caxton) in 1521, but we have only a tiny fragment of one copy, so we don't know much about what was in the book.

The Puritans who won England's Civil War in the 1640s tried to suppress the carol -- indeed, they tried to suppress Christmas! But most of their humorless ideas blew away in a puff of smoke after the Restoration of 1660. This did largely suppress the publication of carols, but the people continued to preserve them and presumably create new ones.

For centuries, the carols were mostly the property of the folk. Scholars finally noticed them in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was Davies Gilbert who brought out the first modern carol book, the Collection of Christmas Carols of 1823. Much more important was Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, published by William Sandys in 1833. This remained a major source for a century. The last word on English carols remains the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols, which has almost all of the classic British songs. Attempts to replace it have been, flatly, failures; there is, for instance, a New Oxford Book of Carols, but it's the work of a classical type and shows neither the musical skill nor the skill in selection of the original Oxford Book.

There is no equivalent American source, although the Seeger family recording American Folk Songs for Christmas features a fine variety of songs.

Most modern Christmas songs are not carols -- e.g. Silent Night is not in the Oxford Book. The phrase Christmas carols probably came to be used for all Christmas songs because Christmas was the one time carols were still heard. (Plus, of course, there was that book by Dickens....) But even if the modern songs aren't carols, they have become a tradition. And isn't it nice to see some sort of tradition surviving in this day and age?


E. K. Chambers, English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, Oxford, 1945, 1947

J. G. Davies, The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, Westminster, 1986

Grout: Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music, revised edition, Norton, 1973

Peter Happe, editor, English Mystery Plays, Penguin, 1985

Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns, Hallberg, 1982

Pearcy Dearmer, R[alph] Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw, editors, The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928

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