Arts Blog

The Stories of Twelve Carols: 2021 Edition

Each year, All Classical Portland’s Program Director John Pitman, selects twelve carols from our extensive Festival of Carols library for a deep dive look into their origins. In 2019’s list of carols, we explored favorites like The First Nowell and Adeste fidelis. 2020’s list included Riu, riu, chiu and The Sussex Carol.

In this year’s list, you’ll encounter sultry Medieval ballads, surprising Victorian retrofits, indigenous Peruvian dance, macaroni, and possible Soviet assassinations.

Be sure to tune in to our Festival of Carols on All Classical Portland from December 22-25, and check out the rest of our holiday programming!

What Child Is This?

English-speaking cultures owe much of our concept of the traditional Christmas to Victorian England. A couple centuries earlier, Christmas had taken a serious hit in England during the mid-seventeenth-century Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Coming to power after the English Civil War, Cromwell’s Puritan government banned the celebration of Christmas, because it was considered a Catholic tradition and an opportunity for excessive dissipation. Even after the Restoration, Christmas floundered somewhat in England until the Victorians reinvented the holiday.  

Victoria’s royal consort, Prince Albert, set an enduring trend when he brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to Britain. Charles Dickens almost single-handedly wrought the archetypal English Christmas of carols, charity, and roast goose with iconic stories like A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the Hearth. Quite a few of our beloved English-language carols popped up during this relatively recent Victorian explosion of holiday enthusiasm. 

What Child Is This is one of several carols you’ll find on this list in which a Victorian poem is paired with an utterly unrelated archaic tune. This was a fine recipe for an instant classic in an age that wanted carols, and wanted them quickly, but the practice brought about some surprising mixtures of sacred and profane, as you’ll see in this case. 

William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) wrote the text of this carol in 1865. A prolific hymnwriter, Dix also gave us the Epiphany carol As with Gladness Men of Old. Dix’s poem was published in 1871 in a collection entitled Christmas Carols New and Old, edited by two members of Magdalen College, Oxford: Henry Ramsden Bramley and the college organist, Sir John Stainer (1840-1901). Stainer was an influential educator and composer of Anglican church music, who wrote anthems, services, hymn tunes, and the oratorio The Crucifixion. Bramley and Stainer’s carol anthology became massively popular and had an enduring effect on the English carol repertory: it greatly increased the circulation of such classics as The First NowellGod Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (keep an eye out for that one later in this list) and Good King Wenceslas (keep an eye out for that one too). 

It was likely Stainer’s choice to pair Dix’s poem with the tune of Greensleeves, an Elizabethan love song so embedded in English culture that it has picked up an (unsubstantiated) attribution to King Henry VIII. Greensleeves was first seen in print around 1580, but was clearly well-known before then: in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597) Falstaff references this rather steamy ballad in a mid-embrace amorous outburst: “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves…’” 

In case you’re wondering, the Elizabethans considered sweet potatoes to be aphrodisiacs, which seems about as plausible as considering Greensleeves an appropriate tune for Dix’s somber reflection on Christ’s nativity. 

Fum, Fum, Fum!

Veinticinco de diciembre (Twenty-Fifth Day of December), also known by its refrain of Fum, fum, fum, is a Spanish carol that probably originated in Catalonia during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. With its rhythmic drive, it is the sort of carol that was likely sung as an accompaniment to raucous social dance: in fact, the refrain may be onomatopoeic, meant to sound like a drum or a strumming guitar.  

Though today we tend to associate carols with ecclesiastical atmospheres like the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, the genre actually originated outside of church. In the Middle Ages, the term simply indicated a type of secular song with a refrain. Additionally, the English word carol is linked with the French term carole, which referred specifically to songs meant for dancing. As the genre developed, so many carols ended up with lyrics about the nativity of Christ that the word “carol” took on Christmas connotations in the popular consciousness. This is not surprising, considering that Christmastide was one of the wildest party seasons in the medieval calendar, and definitely a time for dancing.

Al nacimiento de Christo nuestro señor

Al nacimiento de Christo nuestro señor (At the Birth of Christ Our Lord) is another dance-carol, this time from eighteenth-century Peru. It was preserved in a remarkable document: the Codex Martínez Compañóna manuscript of watercolors and musical scores illustrating life in the diocese of Trujillo, Peru around the years of 1782-1785. The nine-volume manuscript was compiled by the bishop of Trujillo, Baltasar Jaime Martínez Compañón (1737-1797). The bishop sent the Codex to the King Charles IV of Spain as a thorough report on the flora, fauna, and daily life of Trujillo. Today the Codex is housed in Madrid at the Real Biblioteca del Palacio Real. 

The second volume of the Codex Martínez Compañón features notated music, including Spanish-style songs, and dances that likely originated among indigenous Peruvians. The Trujillo Cathedral’s maestro di capilla, Pedro José Solis, likely assisted in compiling and notating the Codex’s musical selections, which include several Christmas carols. 

Al nacimiento de Christo nuestro señor is identified in the Codex as a cachua, a type of Peruvian round dance. That term is derived from qhachwa, the dance’s name in the language of the Quechua people. Qhachwa is a type of round dance in 2/4 time which was popular in Peru before the Spanish arrived, and is still danced to this day. 

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

For yet more dancing, we turn to Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day. This is an English folk carol, and it is probably centuries old, but it first appeared in print in William B. Sandys’s 1833 collection, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, Including the Most Popular in the West of England…. Sandys (1792-1874) was a lawyer and amateur antiquarian whose pastime was collecting carols, particularly from the West of England. He was clearly fascinated by holiday traditions: he prefaced his published collection with an extensive essay on the history of midwinter celebrations, both pagan and Christian. At the close of his introductionSandys explains that he printed his personal collection of folk carols to help preserve them lest they become lost to the oral tradition. 

“[It was] an occasional amusement during some visits to the West of England, to collect any carols I met with. These gradually accumulated, and it was my intention, a few years since, to have printed a few of the most popular … The practice [of caroling] appearing to get more neglected every year, which will hereafter increase the difficulty of obtaining specimens, I determined to hazard the ensuing selections from a very large number of descriptions.” (Sandys 1833, cxliii) 

Sandys’s collection includes a wide variety of pieces, including medieval carols in Middle English and a selection of French carols. Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day appears in the second section of Sandys’s collection, which is devoted to English folk carols. Sandys explains, 

“The carols contained in the Second Part…are selected from upwards of one hundred obtained in different parts of the West of Cornwall, many of which, including those now published, are still in use. Some few of them are printed occasionally in the county, and also in London, Birmingham, and other places, as broadside carols … but a large portion, including some of the most curious, have, I believe, never been printed before.” (Sandys 1833, 182)

Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern was an influential catalyst for the Victorian Christmas revival. In addition to Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, Sandys’s collection also introduced Victorian carolers to The First NowellI Saw Three Ships, and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, the carol we’ll explore next. 

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is one of the “broadside carols” Sandys mentioned in his notes to Carols Ancient and Modern. The carol was printed in English broadsides from as early as 1760, and certainly existed as a folk carol long before that. Broadsides were inexpensive single-sheet publications, popular from the sixteenth century onward in England. Musical ballads were among the most common content for broadsides, which were often peddled by street singers who could advertise their merchandise by singing it for passersby.  

Like quite a few carols on this list, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen exploded in popularity during the Victorian era’s obsession with all things Christmas, thanks in part to Sandys’s collection. This particular carol was firmly entrenched in cultural consciousness by 1843, when Charles Dickens had a street urchin sing it for an unappreciative Ebenezer Scrooge in that incubator of Victorian Christmas tradition, the novella A Christmas Carol 

The punctuation of this carol’s first line is a recurring source of confusion for singers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Rest you merry” (or “rest you happy”) is an archaic expression indicating well-wishes, dating back at least to the fourteenth century. The greeting appears in several of Shakespeare’s plays as well. This means that if you’re a stickler, the comma (and any attendant pause) ought to be placed after the word “merry,” not after “you.” 

The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy

This joyful Christmas spiritual comes to us from the island of Trinidad. It was first published in 1945 in The Edric Connor Collection of West Indian Spirituals and Folk Tunes. Edric Connor (1913-1968) was an actor and singer from Trinidad and Tobago. Connor enjoyed a lengthy career on the British stage and on BBC Radio, and he was also active as a folklorist researching the music of the Caribbean. Connor compiled and published two books of Caribbean folk music during the 1950s and 60s. 

In his 1954 collection, Connor tells the story of learning The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy: 

“This, the only West Indian negro carol I found, was taught me by James Bryce, whose parents and grandparents were in Trinidad before the abolition of slavery in 1834. I met Bryce in 1942, when he was ninety-four years of age, but was still working, in rags, on a grapefruit plantation for 1s. 8d. a day. He died in September 13, 1943.” (Quoted in Keyte and Parrott 1993, 273.)

Edric Connor recorded many selections from his Collection of West Indian Spirituals and Folk Tunes, including The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy. This recording comes from his 1955 album with The Southlanders, Songs from Trinidad. 

The Carol of the Bells

This popular carol is actually a composed anthem, not a folk carol, but it comes by its traditional sound naturally: the composer was a Ukrainian ethnomusicologist who based it on a motif he found when studying folk music. Mykola Leontovych (1877-1921) was a choral conductor, a faculty member at the Lysenko School of Music and Drama, and a founder of the First Ukrainian State Capella. As a composer, he specialized in adapting the distinct sounds of Ukrainian folk music to a cappella choral compositions. Soviet leaders did not take kindly to Leontovych’s work preserving distinctly Ukrainian culture: he was shot in 1921 under mysterious circumstances, in what many felt to be a government assassination. 

Leontovych’s most famous anthem, the one we often know as Carol of the Bells, was entlitled Shchedryk (Bountiful Evening). Composed in 1916, this piece was originally intended for Epiphany or for the celebration of the New Year in the Julian calendar. Leontovych took the piece’s famous four-note ostinato from Ukrainain well-wishing folk songs for the New Year. The original Ukrainian lyrics tell of a bird bringing good wishes for the New Year, and have nothing to do with bells. 

Ukrainian conductor Alexander Koshetz popularized Shchedryk during international tours with the Ukrainian Republic Capella in the 1920s. It was likely during one of their visits to the United States that Ukrainian-American composer Peter J. Wilhousky heard Shchedryk and decided to adapt it as a Christmas carol, with English words utterly unrelated to the Ukrainian original. In 1936, Wilhousky published his version as The Carol of the Bells. 

In this recording, the Ukrainian chamber choir Cantus sings Leontovych’s elegant original piece. 

The Twelve Days of Christmas

If you are looking for something fun to do after Christmas dinner, perhaps you should consider the tradition of forfeit games. There are plenty of ways to play forfeits, and most boil down to this: each player is issued a challenge, and if they fail, they’re required to perform an entertaining or embarrassing forfeit of some descriptionthis particular site lists quite a lot of kissing-related forfeits from the Victorian era. 

With its massive list of nonsense gifts to remember, The Twelve Days of Christmas may well have been used as a type of Christmas forfeit game – repeating long lists and adding new items was one popular way to play. The song also bears similarity to of English counting songs. You might recognize other counting songs from Mother Goose, like One, Two, Buckle My Shoe or One Man Went to Mow.

The Twelve Days of Christmas has been around since at least the 18th century, when it was frequently printed in broadsides. Its text is associated with Twelfth Night, or the night before Epiphany. In the Christian liturgical calendar, Christmas begins on December 25 with the celebration of Christ’s nativity, and the season continues until January 6, with a celebration of the arrival of the wise men with their gifts for the Christ Child. (or until Candlemas in February, depending on whom you ask, but that’s another story.) In Tudor England, Twelfth Night was a time for raucous festivity, with feasting, games and theater; in Elizabethan times, Shakespeare likely wrote his play Twelfth Night for just such an occasion.  

The Twelve Days of Christmas is so old that you’d think the carol would be in the public domain by now, but in fact, for much of the twentieth century, four notes of it were not. In 1909, the English baritone Frederic William Austin (1872-1952) published an edition of the song that reflected his own particular manner of singing it – with a pause and a flourish on the phrase “Five gold rings.” That single phrase may now be the most fun moment in the song, so one can understand why Austin copyrighted it. 

Good King Wenceslas

This is not the last time we’ll encounter the work of John Mason Neale (1818-1866), Anglican priest, hymnwriter and translator. He is responsible for an astonishing number of enduringly popular English hymn translations, including All Glory, Laud, and HonorJerusalem the Golden, and in the Christmas and Advent categories, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and Of the Father’s Heart Begotten, to name just a few. 

Neale was a High Church Anglican, meaning that he supported integrating more practices from the Roman Catholic tradition into Anglican worship. One interest was the observance of saints’ days, and Neale wrote one of his original poems, Good King Wenceslas, for the feast day of St. Stephen, which falls on December 26.  

St. Stephen was a martyr recorded in the New Testament Book of Acts, as well as a deacon whose calling was to care for the poor. That connection might account for the tradition of charity giving on Boxing Day. In his hymn for St. Stephen’s Day, however, Neale chose to write about a different saint: St. Václav, Duke of Bohemia (c. 911-935 or 929), the patron saint of the Czech nation. St. Václav (sometimes transliterated as “Wenceslas”) was renowned for good deeds, and in Neale’s poem, the saint offers an example of care for the poor which amounted to a strong social statement amid the stark class distinctions of Victorian England. 

To accompany his lyrics, Neale selected an archaic tune with no connection to Christmas, St. Stephen, or even winter. Tempus adest floridum is a secular song about the delights of spring which Neale took from Piae cantiones ecclesiasicae veleruma collection of Latin songs for schoolchildren published in Finland in 1582. Neale acquired the volume in 1853, and mined it successfully for several new English Christmas classics – including our next selection. 

In dulci jubilo

This medieval German carol was first published around 1400, but it was known before that. Around 1328, the Dominican monk and mystic Heinrich Seuse recorded a vision in which he was visited by angels, with whom he sang and danced to this carol. This record has led some to attribute the carol’s composition to Seuse, but it is possible that his charming story simply indicated that he was familiar with the song. 

The original text of In dulci jubilo (In Sweet Rejoicing) is partly in German and partly in Latin. This form of bilingual poetry, called macaronic verse, was popular in the Middle Ages. Most commonly a macaronic poem combined Latin, the era’s international scholarly language, with a vernacular tongue.  

If the term “macaronic” sounds like a snack, that’s because (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), “macaronic” is related to the Italian word macaroni, which indicated a type of dumpling long before it described the noodle best known for its companionship of cheese. The idea was that macaroni was a rustic peasant food, and “macaronic” verse was humorous and lowbrow rather than elitist. 

Though macaronic verse was often used for humorous effect, it also appears in many medieval carol texts. The combination of Latin with vernacular languages may have been a technique to make sacred poetry more accessible to lay people who weren’t fluent in Latin. The Boar’s Head Carol and There is no rose of such virtue are a couple wildly contrasting examples of English-Latin macaronic verse. 

After the Reformation, In dulci jubilo entered the Lutheran chorale repertory, and it enjoyed treatments by many Lutheran Baroque composers, Buxtehude and Bach among them. In England and America, the best-known arrangement of In dulci jubilo may be the 1836 double-choir setting by Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795-1856). Pearsall’s translation maintains the text’s macaronic structure, keeping the Latin portions and replacing the German lines with rhyming English translations. 

However, in what is becoming a theme of this list, many English-speakers know this carol tune attached to an English text that has nothing to do with the original. Our good friend John Mason Neale found In dulci jubilo in the same Finnish source that brought him the tune of Good King Wenceslas, and he furnished it with a new, original text entitled “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” (He also added that single, arguably ineffective extra bar of music which declares, “News! News!”) That version appeared in Bramley and Stainer’s Victorian classic, Christmas Carols New and Old, along with the previously-discussed What Child is This? 

Joseph lieber, Joseph mein

By the fourteenth century or so, German-speaking countries had developed a charming Christmas tradition called Kindelwiegen. At the manger scene or creche set up at churches, worshippers would gather to rock the Christ-Child in a cradle, while singing lullaby carols with decidedly cradle-rocking 6/8 or 3/4 rhythms. This custom was the probable origin of the German carol, Joseph lieber, Joseph mein (Joseph dear, Joseph mine). This carol text has been in use since at least around 1400, when it was preserved in a manuscript housed at Leipzig University.  

Concurrently, German-speaking cultures attached the same rocking-carol tune to a Latin text, sometimes given as “Resonemus laudibus” or “Resonet in laudibus.” Both of these versions were likely part of the medieval Kindelwiegen custom as well. There is also a macaronic version of the carol that combines the German text of Joseph lieber, Joseph mein with the Latin of Resonet in laudibus. The entire Jospeh lieber and Resonemus phenomenon is a great example of the organic development of carols in a living culture – something we’re still doing, to an extent, every time somebody sings or publishes a slightly altered version of Silent Night or Adeste fidelis. 

Like In dulci jubiloJoseph lieber, Joseph mein continued to be a popular hymn during the Reformation and beyond. The Renaissance composer Johann Gottfried Walther wrote a lovely macaronic setting of Joseph lieber, Joseph mein which was published in 1607, in the fifth volume of the hymn anthology Musae Sioniae, edited by Michael Praetorius.

Veni, veni Emmanuel

For yet another convoluted tale of sketchy provenance, mysterious attribution, and retrofitted lyrics, we close with the Advent hymn Veni, veni Emmanuel, known in English as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  

This carol’s lyrics are adapted from liturgical texts dating from the eighth century in the Roman church: the Great O antiphons. These chants are sometimes called the “Magnificat” antiphons because they are sung along with the Magnificat at Evening Prayer on the last eight days leading up to Christmas. The text of each antiphon references a messianic prophecy from the Old Testament, addressing the coming Christ in a series of images, like the “Branch of Jesse,” the “Dayspring,” and “Key of David.” 

At some point, possibly in France, someone adapted the O antiphons as strophic Latin verses to create the hymn we know as Veni, veni Emmanuel – but we don’t know who did it, or when. The earliest-known record of the text (without an accompanying tune) appears in the 1710 edition of a Jesuit hymnal published in Cologne, entitled Psalteriolum cantionum catholicarum. The text came to the attention of English-speaking carol fanciers in 1854, when our prolific friend John Mason Neale published a singable translation of the text. Neale’s translation was soon anthologized in the 1861 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern as well as Bramley and Stainer’s collection of Christmas Carols New and Old. 

At its publication, Neale’s English hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was paired with that now-famous Veni Emmanuel tune, in an arrangement by English composer Thomas Helmore (1811-1890). Both Neale and Helmore claimed their hymn was an adaptation of one they found in an eighteenth-century French missal. However, somewhere along the way that missal went missing, and for about a century, more than one carol scholar suspected Helmore of forging the Veni Emmanuel melody himself. English scholar Mary Berry finally cleared up the mystery (somewhat) in 1961 when she discovered the Veni Emmanuel tune (attached to a different text) as a processional in a fifteenth-century French manuscript intended for use in convents.  

It’s still not clear if the text and tune of Veni Emmanuel had anything to do with each other before Neale and Helmore’s Victorian version of 1854. Regardless, like many of the carols on this list, its marriage of music and text is propitious. Choral adaptations abound: one of the loveliest is a three-voice 1943 arrangement entitled Adventi ének (Advent Hymn), by Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). 

Learn More

Click here for a Spotify playlist of the carols featured in this article.

This is a selected bibliography of the sources I consulted when writing this article. For a great place to start learning the histories of your favorite carols, I recommend The New Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Andrew Parrott, Clifford Bartlett, and Hugh Keyte, an authoritative anthology of carols with historical notes. 

Almond, B.J. “ ‘Carol of the Bells’ wasn’t originally a Christmas carol.” Rice University News and Media Relations. December 13, 2004. 

Bramley, Henry Ramsden, and John Stainer. Christmas Carols New and OldLondon: Novello, Ewer & Co., 1871. 

Gant, Andrew. The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015. 

Jeffrey, David L. “Early English Carols and the Macaronic Hymn.” Florilegium 4 (1982): 210-227. file:///Users/EmmaMildred/Downloads/administrator,+flora4art13.pdf. 

Keyte, Hugh, and Andrew Parrott. The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols. UK: Oxford University Press, 1993. 

Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. UK: T. Fischer Unwin, 1912. Project Gutenberg Ebook, August 21, 2016. 

Parrott, Andrew, Clifford Bartlett, and Hugh Keyte, eds. The New Oxford Book of Carols. UK: Oxford University Press, 1998. 

Sandys, William B. Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern: Including the Most Popular in the West of England, and the Airs to Which They Are Sung. London: Richard Beckley, 1833. 

Studwell, William. The Christmas Carol Reader. New York: Routledge, 2011.  

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