Sometimes the stories behind our much-loved Christmas carols are quite disheartening, involving as they do national and international strife and religious rivalry that was both bloody and filled with hatred. Yet every year we sing the resultant carols with joy. The reactions of the human race are sometimes contradictory. To say the least!
I am a prime example of this, because the first time I watched Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey (available on BBC iPlayer for a week or two if you miss it when broadcast) I was struck by her Tudor bias. It seemed to leap out at me, especially when she more or less declared that Father Christmas was only prominent during the Tudor period. As he was around in the 13th century mystery plays (albeit under a slightly different name), I thought the Tudors had no right whatsoever to claim him!
Alright, I can hear you scoffing that my Yorkist talons are showing, and maybe they are. I seldom miss an opportunity to take pops at the Tudor Weasel. Henry VII was never a dish of culinary perfection, no matter how slavishly his propagandists….um, historians….pour bucketfuls of seasoning over him and his descendants (OK, I’ll allow that Elizabeth I was a decent monarch). Nothing could ever make the Weasel palatable to this confirmed Yorkist.
So, when I embarked upon this article and watched Lucy’s Christmas carol list again, I was expecting to react in the same way as the first time around. Strangely, this didn’t happen. Yes, her Tudor leanings were still visible (she’s clearly at her happiest when dressed up in Tudor styles) but this time the programme struck me as much more interesting and informative. If Lucy is to your liking, it’s very much more of the same as usual. Regarding her wit and personality, I mean—I’m not casting aspersions.
Anyway, here are her favourite carols:-
- Here We Come A-Wassailing: This was described as the taking over of ancient Anglo-Saxon midwinter fertility revels (as in a fruitful harvest of apples). Very definitely pagan, but taken over by Church. The singing and jollity around the apple tree by torchlight was splendid. An excellent beginning to the list.
- The Holly and the Ivy: Tudor times, when Father Christmas had joined the fun. 🙄
- Ding Dong Merrily on High: This started as a 16th century French Renaissance dance. Lucy dresses up and learns the appropriate dance. We had beautiful singing from a choir in a French cathedral. It seems this carol stayed in France for 300 years, not reaching England until 1924!
- While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks: Now we went to Ely Cathedral, but still with the Tudors. In 1534 we had the Protestant Reformation, and Henry VIII tolerating carols that were a “leftover” from the Catholic era. However, his son. Edward VI was very rabidly Protestant. At the age of 12 he declared the Pope was the Antichrist! Only psalms were to be sung in church. Puritans supplied the words to this Christmas carol, and eventually this very Protestant song was generally approved.
- The Twelve Days of Christmas: Fun and games at last. It started as a “forfeit game” chanted by children. One child said the first line, the second child said the first and second lines, the third child sang lines 1, 2 and 3 and so on. The forfeit was usually to be tickled! It’s 18th century, and it’s not known where tune came from.
- Oh Come All Ye Faithful: British Catholics were being persecuted, some even forced to go abroad. Catholic texts were smuggled into Britain from the English College in France, until the French Revolution meant the college itself had to come to Britain bringing their relics etc with them. This carol is all about Jacobites and is a hymn to Bonnie Prince Charlie!
- Hark the Herald Angels Sing: I really didn’t like the choir’s version of this. It’s just a personal thing, but I’ve never liked it when simple, beautiful songs or melodies are rearranged until they’re sometimes unrecognisable. This didn’t go quite that far, but I still didn’t like it. Then we had a crowd of festive people singing it. Much better! Great! We had both melodies, and I knew the original version as well as the later one, which was courtesy of the Methodists.
- In the Bleak Midwinter: This is Victorian, 1871 Christina Rossetti was very ill with thyroid trouble when she wrote the poem which was eventually set to a tune by Holst. She was suffering from depression. The eventual carol is sung beautifully by a single girl chorister, but the Rossetti atmosphere isn’t festive, instead being rather too sad and reflective. I’m afraid that learning the mournful story of this carol saddened me, and I will never hear it the same way again.
- O Little Town of Bethlehem: Americans say the words are the work of Reverend Philips of Philadelphia, who visited Bethlehem in 1860s. He apparently got the organist of his church to write a tune for it. But in England in 1903 the story of this carol is that Ralph Vaughan Williams discovered a traditional English folk tune The Plough Boy’s Dream, which became what is now O Little town of Bethlehem! Take your pick.
- Silent Night: This carol was born in Austria of conflict during the Napoleonic Wars. Half a million Austrians had died, and Silent Night is a simple, heartfelt response to the conflict. Then it became the cause of a memorable moment of peace in Northern France during the height of the First World War. On Christmas Eve 1914, in a fleeting truce, British soldiers heard the German soldiers singing Silent Night they decided to sing too. It led to the wonderful coming together of men from both sides, who became friends for a brief while….only to become enemies again when the fighting resumed.
At the end of the programme the credits came up to the strains of The Holly and the Ivy. But then it struck me that my list of favourite Christmas carols might have included some others that are just as well-known and loved as Lucy’s list.
- Away in a Manger
- Once in Royal David’s City
- Good King Wenceslas
- It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen