Page 9, 7th December 1962

7th December 1962
Page 9
Page 9, 7th December 1962 — Where did our Carols come from?

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Organisations: Douai College
Locations: London, Chester


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Where did our Carols come from?

By Fr. Douglas Brice, C. SS. R.

1 Bing of a . mai . den That in

make . leaa

(n,are it,,) I Bing of a mat . den Thal Is make lean THE word "carol" is derived from the old French "caroler" meaning "to dance in a circle". In mediaeval

times it was the custom for the country folk to come together at Christmas time, and in the spirit of neighbourliness and

good will, to join hands and take part in a ring-dance to

the words and music of "The Holly and the Ivy" or some other such well-known carol.

The soloist or leader of the dance would take up a stationary position in the centre of the circle, and sing the stanzas (from the Latin "stare") while the rest of the assembly danced "in loco" beating time with their hands and feet. After each stanza the dancers would enter with the burden or chorus, and joining hands would dance to a triple rhythm—the entire circle revolving in clockwise motion.

Although the dance has now disappeared from the carol, it still survives in all its vigour in children's spring songs and nursery rhymes.


It is to Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) that we must ascribe the origin of the carol. He is the parent of the carol, and it was before the crib erected in his hermitage at Grecchio that the first carols were sung and danced.

was a typically gay troubadour speaking the language of the love-poets of Languedoc, and it was due to his genial spirituality that our Christmas carols hecame what they are---charming little symposiums of Christian teaching that are all the more Christian for being so jolly.

In 1224, the first Franciscans landed in England, and soon began to enjoy. the same popularity as on the continent. They were not slow in divining the spiritual needs of the people, and saw at once, in the use of simple religious songs in the vernacular, an effective means of instructing the people.

Accordingly, selecting a popular secular song, they would substitute for the profane text a poem containing simple Christian teaching. The song would he sung—if only for the sake of the melody—and so gradually the country folk would come to acquire a greater knowledge of their faith.

The carols employed by the friars therefore had the same pastoral value as, centuries

before, stained glass had had in the hands of the Benedictines. The church had always ' been the poor man's library, and as simple folk had previously learnt their religion from the great windows of the cathedral as from a picture book, so did they now come to a greater knowledge of their Christian

faith through the songs of the friars,


The earliest of our Christmas carols was discovered among some Franciscan sermon notes and dates from about the year 1450. Thomas of Hale was the

first of the carol writers, but the most prolific was John Ryman who is accredited with over one quarter of our early English carol texts.

In a MS dated 1492, as many as 166 are ascribed to his name, of which 119 are in stanzaburden or dance form in imitation of the "Laude Spir!tuali" in use among the Flagellants of northern Italy. The apochryphal element which distinguishes so many of our finest carols, such as "King Herod and the Cock", "The Bitter Withy", and "The Cherry Tree Carol"—was first introduced by the friars about this period.

We may well feel inclined to inquire—but what precisely is a carol? How does it differ, for example, from a hymn? The carol, apart from being a rounddance, praises God indirectly

through picturesque references to such inessentials as angels, stars, the shepherds, the beasts of the manger, whereas in the hymn God is praised directly and addressed in person. Nor should the carol be confused with the French noel which has no necessary connection with the dance at all.

however, about the middle of the sixteenth century the carol as a dance began to fall into disuse, but as so many religious songs have been written for choral performance only since then, the definition of Percy Dearmer would seem to be the most satisfactory: "Carols are songs with a religious impulse, that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern". Here we have a definition embracing all carols of all time.

"Poor folk that may my carol hear (The bells ring single and the bells ring clear),

See God's own son had hardest cheer!

(Carilton, carillon, carilla.)

Men grown hard on a Christmas morn, r'he dumb beast by and the babe forlorn, It was very, very cold when our Lord was born, And the small child Jesus smile on you."


Originally, carols were primarily intended for use out of doors, and apart from being sung by groups of carollers who toured the countryside during the Christmas season, were also played, as they are still today, by small bands of instrumentalists known as the waits.

The name "wait", from which the surname Wakeman is derived, was applied to the public official or watchman who patrolled the streets at night time to ensure the maintenance of law and order during the hours of sleep.

Like the watchman in "Die Meistersinger he carried a horn or hauthoy which he used to sound the hours and to reassure

the townsfolk that he was on the beat and that all was well. Its loud and coarse sounding tone was ideal for out-of-door use,' especially in times of inclement weather. Eventually these musicians clubbed together to form small orchestras, and at Christmas time delighted the public with their recitals of carol music.

In his "Sketch Book", the American novelist Washington Irving tells how, in the year 1820 while on a visit to Yorkshire, he was pleasantly surprised by a visit from the waits one wintry night: "I had scarcely got into bed, when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found that it proceeded from a band which I concluded to be the waits from a neighbouring village. I listened with hushed delight, even the sound of the waits, rude as may he their minstrelsy, breaks upon the midnight watches of a winter

night with the effect of perfect harmony."

The music in question would probably have been "Christians Awake" — the first carol sung on Christmas morning. The text was written by John Byrom (1691-1763) at the request of his eleven-year-old daughter Dolly who had asked for a poem as her Christmas present


In the Bodleian Library, a well known MS containing a number of carols by John Audelay has inscribed on the title page an injunction urging men and women of all classes of society — "both more and less'' — to join with their fellows in the singing of carols at Christmas time.

There is an unmistakable note of urgency about the rubric, as though implying a measure of obligation. Indeed, this is as it should be, for our Christmas carols, besides being a common inheritance in which the man in the street and the University professor are equally at home, have the wholesome, if rather startling, effect of reducing all men to the same common denominator as children of one great human family.

This is the spirit of Christmas of which good King Wenceslas was such a shining example. As he looked from his palace window one winter evening, and observed a poor peasant gathering sticks of wood for his fire, he saw in his lowly subject his own flesh and blood.

"1 pray you sirs — both more and less, Sing these carols at Christemas."


The carol soon became a great favourite with the Eng1kb peasants who eventually began to write their own poems and to sing them to music of their own composing. Thus it came about, that somewhere towards the close of the fourteenth century our national

carol repertory began to take shape.

The folk carol is a communal composition which began life originally as the result of an extemporary effort on the part of some individual. With its first public performance words and melody would be taken up by the country folk and passed from mouth to mouth, from hamlet to hamlet like a piece of gossip, each singer twisting the tune and altering the words to his own satisfaction, until, like a coin in the pocket, it became, with the passage of time, the smooth and polished product that it is today. Folk carols are the poor man's treasury, the music of the peasant and the ploughboy. The finest of these old songs is undoubtedly the fifteenth century specimen "I Sing of a Maiden" which treats of the painless childbearing of the Virgin Mary.

Of this carol Professor Saintsbury writes: "In no previous verse had this Aeolian music which distinguishes English at its very best been given to the

world". Only artistry at its most sublime could have justified the portrayal of a subject at once so sweet and delicate in its intimacy:

"I sing of a maiden That is makeless: King of all kings To her son she ches.

He came all so still Where his mother was As dew in April That falleth upon the grass.

He came all so still To his mothers bowr As dew in April That falleth upon the flower.

He came all so still Where his mother lay As dew in April That falleth upon the spray.

Mother and maiden Was never none but she; Well may such a lady Godc's mother be."


Our manuals of Christmas carols are attractive and variegated, comprising as they do specimens from every corner of our land. "I Saw Three Ships" originated on the banks of the Tyne and was inspired by the shipping industry of the North East,

"The Coventry Carol" 'was composed for "The Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors", a Mystery Play written for the feast of Corpus Christi insti tuted by Pope Urban IV in 1264.

"A Virgin Unspotted" derives from Herefordshire, while "On Christmas Night all Christians Sing" is the pride of Sussex, and "God Rest you Merry, Gentlemen" a stout hearted contrihution from the tavern life of


"The Song of the Nuns of Chester" a lullaby with a Latin text, was composed by a nlemher of the community of Saint Mary's Abbey, Chester; and the naive "Here we come a-wassailing" is one of the many drinking songs for which the West Riding is so famous.

The "Adeste Fideles" is of international appeal, and is now known to have been composed, both as to words and music, by John Francis Wade (d. 1786), teacher of Latin and copyist at Douai College where it was sung for the first time.

Twentieth-century composers have also made their contributions, and "The Virgin's Cradle Hymn" by Edmund Ruhbra, a Buckinghamshire composer, is one of the best known of modern polyphonic carols.

Equally beautiful is the exceedingly poignant "Noel" by Hilaire Belloc for which Arthur Warrell has provided the music, The deep spirituality underlying this poem makes it one of the most moving examples in English carol literature:

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