I do like the music of Christmas. Christmas carols and songs can be beautiful, funny, catchy and an enjoyable soundtrack to the season. (There are exceptions to this, of course – Rudolph and Frosty, I’m looking at you.) It can be interesting to know just how far back some Christmas carols go. So, I have done a little digging and have found the beginnings of some old Christmas carols.  

There are various renditions of these songs on Youtube. I have placed links to ones I feel best showed the spirit of the songs.

“The Coventry Carol” dates from the 16th century or potentially earlier. It formed part of one of the mystery plays performed in Coventry. Mystery plays depicted biblical stories and were common throughout Europe as early as the twelfth century. From the thirteenth century the plays were taken over by guilds of craftsmen, and the earliest manuscript of this song comes from a selection called ‘The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors’. A manuscript of 1534 is oldest surviving, however, given the earlier date from which mystery plays were performed, potentially this carol could be much older. The music is in a melodic minor key, and I was told by a music teacher many years ago that this is an indicator of age – that more recent songs would not use this particular key. It’s a haunting and beautiful song about the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem.

“Gabriel’s message” is a Basque folk carol based on a Latin carol from the 13th or 14th century. This one is an Annunciation story, and it is one of my personal favourites. Gabriel gives Mary the news she will be the mother of Jesus, with the refrain ‘most highly favoured lady’ at the end of each verse. Mary responds with her consent (‘to me be as it pleaseth God’) and the song ends with Christ’s birth. It is still a popular song today, being recorded by artists such as Sting in his album “If on a winter’s night”. The melody has a simplicity and purity to it that really appeals to me.

“We Wish you a Merry Christmas” dates from the 1500s. It refers to the custom of wassailing (a precursor of carolling door to door). The singers would go from house to house and sing in exchange for food, drink or other gifts. This song is quite funny, with its demand for figgy pudding and ‘we won’t go until we’ve got some’. But it does validate to some extent that wassailing had a bad reputation in some areas, as young people could get very demanding and even vandalize property if they didn’t get what they wanted. But in general it was an innocuous tradition, often used in areas where poorer people would hit up the rich houses. ‘Wassail’ refers to the ‘wassail bowl’, a communal drinking vessel which would be passed from person to person, everyone taking a drink. However, ‘a happy new year’ may have been added later – at the time this song was thought to have first been sung, new year was not on January 1. That didn’t change until the 17th century.

“Here we come a wassailing” – the origin of this is uncertain, but given it is another song about wassailing this would indicate it may be about the same age as the previous song. It’s a bit more serious than that one, but the lyrics do point to the tradition involving the wassailers being youngsters of the neighbourhood, poorer neighbours singing at the houses of the more affluent, lord of the manor and so on:

We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children whom you have seen before.

And in this song, they’re not asking for ‘figgy pudding’. They mention beer, money, mouldy cheese (why??) and Christmas loaf (whatever that is.) The lyrics also point to this being a ‘twelfth night’ song, as it speaks about New Year but not actually about Christmas. That is another indication of its antiquity.

“O come O come Emmanuel” can trace its origins back to the twelfth century, from the Latin version ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’. The style of the music is a free rhythm, reminiscent of plainsong. Plainsong is what was sung in church before the ninth century, when polyphony was introduced. The Latin version itself seems to have been a paraphrased form of the ‘O Antiphons’, used in church on the last seven days of Advent and dating back to the sixth century. So, though the current form of the song is later, its origins are the earliest of this list. The lyrics are heavily Bible based, and there are several English translations.

The lyrics refer to the coming of the Messiah and the salvation of Israel. There is a weight in the lyrics and the music that lends a solemn and very deeply emotional feel to this song, full of the truth of Christ’s coming.

“Wexford Carol” is an Irish carol whose actual origins are unknown. Based on its style, it is thought to have been written in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, though some do insist it is from earlier, around the twelfth century. It originated from County Wexford, hence its name, and is about the birth of Christ. It goes through Mary and Joseph trying to find lodging, ending up in the stable, Mary giving birth, the shepherds, and the wise men. The melody is quite beautiful, and while there is a tradition that only men should sing it (I don’t know why that is), some of the best renditions are by female singers.

So, these are just a few old Christmas carols, their origins, why I like them and links to where you can listen. This is, of course, a drop in the ocean of beautiful Christmas music. Listening to the vast array of wonderful Christmas music is what helps me to celebrate Christ, remembering the reason for the season. I would be interested to hear what favourite Christmas carols my readers enjoy. Please comment and let me know. This list, and my own knowledge of Christmas music, is mostly Eurocentric, so if you have any suggestions from elsewhere in the world, I would be very interested to hear about it.

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