Early Music Christmas Carols

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  Or so Andy Williams would tell you.  Full of “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago-o-o-o-o.”  But what about those Christmases long, long ago?  Have you ever considered where your favorite Christmas carols originate?  Some of them probably aren’t quite what you imagine.

For example, let’s start with a favorite of mine, “Carol of the Bells.”

I can tell you that in my personal collection, I have nearly 80 different renditions of this in a variety of styles (there are at least twice that many available for purchase), and except for a couple of parody versions, all of them are cleverly labeled as Christmas music.  It’s also considered to be “traditional” for this time of year.  Both assumptions are incorrect.  The original Ukrainian title translates as “the generous one,” and the song itself tells of a swallow proclaiming to a family of the bountiful year they will have.  No bells to be had anywhere.  The tune was composed by Mykola Leontovych, based on traditional Ukrainian folk tunes.  It’s a song of the New Year… celebrated in pre-Christian Ukraine with the coming of springtime in April.  The song was first performed at Kiev University in December 1916, losing popularity following the rise of the Soviet Union, and introduced via concert tour of Europe and the Americas between 1919 and 1921.  The idea of bells, and the associated lyrics, comes from a rearrangement by Wilhousky for the NBC Radio Symphony Orchestra, first aired in 1936.  Alternate versions began popping up shortly after, and it has since been tweaked for pretty much every musical style you can name.

Not exactly traditional, is it?  But then, tradition is pretty much in the eye of the beholder, so maybe tradition simply means “this is what I grew up with.”  Many of my personal traditions are that way, hailing from the Jazz Age thanks to the likes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.  “Silver Bells” is another of my favorites, circa 1950.  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” began as a marketing campaign for Montgomery Ward in 1939.  “Silent Night” is about as traditional as it gets for a great many of us, and yet it only dates back to 1818.  “We Three Kings”… 1857.  “Good King Wenceslas”… 1853.  “The Holly and the Ivy”… 1812-ish.  “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”… 1739.  And so on.  In fact, most of what we think of as “traditional” carols hail from the 18th and 19th centuries, with some 20th century notables such as “Carol of the Bells.”

So how about in the days of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?  I know someone out there is screaming “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.”  That one’s often found on collections of early Christmas music.  Not so much, it turns out.  It was based on a poem by Christina Rossetti, published in January 1872, first set to music by Gustav Holst in 1906.  “I Saw Three Ships” was first published in 1833, but has its origins in the 17th century… after the Renaissance.  But we often believe some of these tunes are much older simply due to instrumentation.  Switch out a violin for a viol or a guitar for a lute, and ta-da!… early music.  Or so it seems.  It’s fun, it’s often beautiful, but it’s not exactly authentic.  Then again, most of what we think of as authentic early music tends to be educated guesswork.  Even so, we can date back a few favorites to the Days of Olde, so I thought I’d share some just because I can.



There are a lot of ideas around this song, and most of them are inaccurate.  For example, many insist this song was composed by Henry VIII for Anne Boleyn following his failed attempts to seduce her, a myth perpetuated on the TV series The Tudors.  Thing is, the piece uses a style of Italian composition that did not reach England until after Henry’s death, marking it as likely to be of Elizabethan origin.  To make things more interesting, the basis of the Italian style in question is the romanesca, which originates in Spain.  The first registry of any tune by this name comes from 1580, “A Newe Northern Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves” by Richard Jones.  Within a year, six more ballads using variations on “Greensleeves” would be registered.  By 1686, the song was associated with Christmas and New Year texts, ultimately resulting in alternate lyrics by William Chatterton Dix in 1865: “What Child Is This?”


“The Coventry Carol”

The author of this one is unknown, but the oldest known text of it was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, with the oldest associated melody dating back to the tail end of the Renaissance in 1591.  It was originally part of a mystery play, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, dealing with the “Massacre of the Innocents” from chapter two of the Gospel of Matthew.  Cheerful stuff, let me tell you.  But then, that’s sort of the nature of the source material, as most of us know.


“Als I Lay on Yoolis Night”

Sometimes also known simply as “On Yoolis Night,” this one hails from England in the early 14th century.  It even has those wonderful Middle English lyrics that separate it from the traditional Catholic hymns of the era.  In terms of subject matter, it’s all about a young mother rocking her child upon her knee, and the child wants her to sing to him.


“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”

The earliest known printed version of this carol is dated 1760, but due to certain phrasings, it’s believed to hail from the 16th century or possibly even earlier.  Nobody really knows for certain.


“The Cherry-Tree Carol”

This carol was reportedly sung at the Feast of Corpus Christi in the early 15th century, though the tune as we understand it today may actually be a combination of three separate carols that have merged over the centuries.


“Boar’s Head Carol”

There’s an ancient tradition regarding the sacrificing of a boar and presenting its head at a Yuletide feast.  As you might imagine, that idea goes back well before Christianity took hold in pagan Europe and was incorporated into the traditions later… much like 95% of what we understand to be holiday traditions.  This one just happens to be where the idea of a Christmas ham comes from.  Later variations will replace the boar with some kind of fowl, usually a goose.  The point is, it’s a party, and a party means music.  This song has been passed down across the world in one form or another since the 15th century.  It’s also a “macaronic carol,” meaning the text uses a mixture of languages.  Macaronic Latin is a jumbled mess of vernacular words with Latin endings… the origins of modern day “pig Latin.”  Ironic, no?


“Gloucestershire Wassail”

Speaking of party, there’s nothing more traditionally medieval (and possibly older) than the concept of wassail, or waes hael.  This is Old English, related to the Anglo-Saxon greeting meaning “drink, and good health” — a salute between warriors.  You’ve no doubt heard the tune “Here We Come A-Wassailing.”  That popular ditty comes to us from circa 1850, but that just goes to show that you can’t kill a good party when it’s otherwise cold and miserable outside.  The word as we know it first appears in the 8th century poem “Beowulf.”  The tradition of wassailing turned somewhere along the line from a warrior salute to the drunken celebrations following battle, giving rise to the party as we understand it, in full swing by the Renaissance.  The “Gloucestershire Wassail” carol dates back to sometime in the Middle Ages, but nobody can seem to pin it down.  Sounds to me like they had a very good time.


“Wexford Carol”

This one is about as traditional medieval as it gets, dating back to the 12th century.  As such, it’s one of the oldest known carols in existence.  Just as the name suggests, this one hails from Ireland’s county of Wexford, specifically Enniscorthy.  Of course, there is some contention about that.  As we know, songs evolve through the centuries, and some of what we know about the song today — the rhyme and tune structures — weren’t quite developed in the 12th century.  What we have today likely swept through with a wave of Irish music during the period of the American Civil War in the mid-19th century.  When the tune’s this old, who can say for certain?


Phos Hilaron

How far back can we go?  Well, they didn’t have carols back in the early Christian tradition, but they certainly had hymns before the Middle Ages.  One of the earliest recorded — still in use today! — comes to us from Greek Orthodox traditions as part of vespers in the Byzantine Rite, sometimes included in modern Anglican and Lutheran traditions.  It’s called Phos Hilaron, sometimes referred to by its Latin title Lumen Hilare.  It was first recorded by an unknown author (some assume Saint Athenogenes on his way to being martyred) in the Apostolic Constitutions, circa 3rd or 4th century AD.  During that time, a tradition in Jerusalem kept a perpetually burning lamp in the empty tomb of Christ, symbolizing the living light.

Not old enough?  What about this one?


“Let all mortal flesh keep silence”

The original tune for this was composed in Greek as a Cherubic Hymn for the Offertory of the Divine Liturgy of St. James, dating back at least to 275 AD.  It’s been translated into different variations ever since from Syriac Aramaic to Provencal (medieval French) and so on.  It’s considered a traditional Catholic hymn today, even though it clearly predates the Church.


This blog post was inspired by the unbelievable number of albums I have in my collection mislabeled as Medieval and Renaissance Christmas music.  I couldn’t leave well enough alone and wanted a better idea of what was authentic to the era.  I hope you had as much fun with this as I did.

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