God Rest You Merry: Carols, Hymns, Dances and Ditties of ChristmasBy David Wihowski

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty? ~ from the "Sussex Carol

These four lines capture the essence of Christmas celebration. Those puritanical Christians (or even non- Christians) who would squelch the celebration, miss the point: “our Redeemer made us glad!” In a previous posting (“Not Christmas Yet”) I may have seemed a little Scrooge-y, but I believe that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every a purpose under heaven.” And that means that even though we have “Alleluia” and “Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall Come” in Advent, the full-blown celebration has not arrived until Christmas Day. Back “in the day” most people did not put up decorations or a Christmas tree until either Christmas Eve night or Christmas morning. I hardly need to say that shedding good traditions nearly always comes with a price... (I suppose it also goes without saying that most Americans have gone overboard on the overt aspects of celebration, such as decorations, gifts, parties,etc., but have no real reason to celebrate other than “just because we can.”)

Now that the appointed time for celebration approaches I offer the following meanderings through some carols, hymns, dances and ditties:

Perhaps the most misunderstood, or disputed, phrase in Christmas music has been the opening of the old British carol "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen."  That is largely due to its antiquity, which is one hallmark of what we might call the historical definition of "carol." Carols in this historical definition are old songs, often of unknown, probably popular origin (i.e. of the people—quite unlike modern “popular”music), and usually associated with a holiday (though there are some seasonal or occasional carols, such as the "Gloucestershire Wassail," which is a drinking song that eventually became associated with Christmas). And since carols are from Christendom, they nearly always focus on a sacred Holy Day or Days, such as Advent, Christmas or even Easter. Incidentally, and with apologies to philologists--that first phrase may be very roughly translated as: God settle [or "comfort" or "rest"] you merrily [or perhaps “inmerriness”], gentlemen.  "Rest," here is used in the same sense that we still use it in the phrase "rest assured." The comma, if present, should also come after "merry," not before it; "merry" modifies "rest you," as in how God will rest you. The pronoun "you" apparently was turned into "ye" later in the song's history (probably by the Victorians) to make it sound "old" or perhaps quaint. The very fact that this first phrase is difficult to pin down, also hints at its antiquity—the “original” versions of the text appear to go back at least to the 15th Century).

Some Not-so-brief Definitions:

A hymn is usually a musical setting of a metric poem composed for a sacred (usually liturgical) purpose with worship or praise as the goal. Hymn text and music composers are often known to us ("Hark the Herald Angels" by Charles Wesley/Felix Mendelssohn or "Silent Night" by Franz Gruber/Joseph Mohr). Naturally a good number of liturgical hymns have no known author, though even a relic like the text of the "Te Deum" is attributed to St. Ambrose, and perhaps St. Augustine.

To expand the historical definition of "carol" already given above: carols were almost always used in secular (i.e. non-liturgical) celebrations, such as the mystery plays of Medieval Christendom (e.g. the "Coventry Carol" which tells of the massacre of the innocents in an old nativity play). Our word "carol" comes from the French "carole," which was apparently a circle dance with sung music, and it is probably no coincidence that many older carols have lilting or dancelike rhythms (e.g. the “Sussex Carol” and “In dulci jubilo” [“Good Christian Men, Rejoice”]). Modern composers of new carols, in imitation of old style, frequently use the 3/4, 3/8 or 6/8 time signatures to help achieve this. Most old carols have very religious texts due to the fact that, despite being "secular," they were still so strongly associated with a Christian holiday that it almost would have been impossible for the texts to have been otherwise; in the world of Christendom, to have carols without texts that were religious would have been rather like a poem about spring without references to new life, freshness, verdant flora or any of the other things one knows to be part of that season. A number of American black spirituals (e.g. "Go, Tell it on the Mountain," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy") or American folk songs (e.g. "I Wonder as I Wander") may properly be considered carols as well, since they came from non-liturgical, popular sources.

St. Francis is credited (I have no idea how accurate this is) with creating the first crèche as part of an outdoor celebration of Christmas Midnight Mass. The story goes that he assembled a manger and several live animals for effect. Villagers apparently brought torches; St. Francis intoned the mass and gave a homily on the Incarnation. If you ever wondered where that odd first line of the popular French carol“Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” came from, this story offers a clue, though who Jeanette and Isabella were seems to be anyone’s guess. The tune used for this carol may well have been used as court dance music at one time as well.

Old carols often have several versions of the text varying over time or by the geographic region they came from. Many of these older versions were sanitized by the more “pious” ministers and liturgists of the 19thCentury who resurrected many old carols and created their share of new ones. “The First Nowell” is a good example of one in which the text has been made less colloquial, and lost much charm in the process. The carol in a Cornish version (probably from at least the 17th Century and probably the source of the versions we now sing) begins with this stanza "O well, O well, the Angels did say/ To shepherds there in the fields did lay;/ Late in the night a-folding their sheep,/ A winter's night, both cold and bleak." You may find the entire Cornish text at:


While there is this sort of formal difference between carol and hymn, in reality the demarcation is a blur; many an old carol probably was first created by a person whose name has been lost to history. Thus using the word carol more freely, as we do now, is natural. The definition of carol, in the 19th Century, regularly included hymns composed for a specific holiday. "Silent Night" is, therefore, both a hymn and a carol.

The bulk of the carols we think of as traditional were written during 19th Century. A number of these 19th century hymn-carols were created for the growing trend of Christmas pageants (a resurrection of the medieval mystery plays, as it were); “We Three Kings of Orient Are” being characteristic. While many of the 19th Century creations are good, there are a few in which the authors were carried away with the Romanticism of the age. They run the gamut from mildly insipid songs such as “Away in the Manger”(nice as a children’s song, and perhaps useful as a call to humility for its adult singers), or the treacle of the Unitarian Edmund Sears’ “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (“...From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold...”) or the preachy Longfellow anti-Civil-war tract, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (even though this stanza is omitted from the sung version, the carol still seems to me to be rather un-Christian: “Then from each black, accursed mouth/The cannon thundered in the South, /And with the sound/The carols drowned/Of peace on earth, good-will toward men!”). Some sources say Edmund Sears was perhaps more Trinitarian than the average Unitarian, but his poem is devoid of that, and if you read the full poem, you may catch the same anti-war, utopian vision that is in Longfellow’s poem.

Understanding the difference between carol and hymn and a little of their history, though certainly not critical, can aid us in appreciating them. Applying the word carol, however, to such ditties and pop tunes as diverse as "Jingle Bells" (which was merely composed as song for wintertime) and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," though done for many years now in popular culture, is something of a stretch. I prefer to think of these types of songs as popular tunes to "sell-ebrate" the holiday, since most of them occur and occurred on albums or in movies that have made much money for crooners, country stars and other pop "musicians." Some of those tunes are not without merit, but most of them are simply sentimentalities that have nothing to do with the Incarnation, and in fact often detract our attention from the reason for the season, as it were. I do not mind listening to a few good versions of some of these songs; I just do so relatively infrequently for two reasons: first, there is just too much good Christmas music and I would rather not waste time with the other fluff; second, there is just too much materialism and sentimentality in these songs to make a regular diet of them: something like eating only candy for the entire holiday season. A little extra candy around Christmas probably is not harmful, and we do have the coming "diet" period of Lent to "repent" of any excess celebration...

Some listening pleasures:

In discussing albums, downloads and videos I limit my scope primarily to Christmas carols and hymns, avoiding most of the modern secular holiday songs, most of which have been created in the last 100 years.

Robert Shaw and his choirs along with Alice Parker (Shaw's very important partner in arranging many of the carols) had been the preeminent Americans promoting good choral music. It used to be almost impossible to attend a Christmas concert (including those that used to be put on [note the tense] in public schools) without encountering "Parker/Shaw" or "Shaw/Parker" credited with at least one of the arrangements. These arrangements still show their faces on many college, church or local choral group's concerts.

Robert Shaw and his choirs have created a number of fine Christmas albums. All of them that I have heard (which is most of them) are respectful of the original carols or hymns, keeping fanciful arranging techniques subordinate to the tradition of the carol or hymn. They are robust, usually spritely renditions with a rather American sound. One of the finest albums (available in CD or download) is: "Songs of Angels - Christmas Hymns and Carols" by Robert Shaw and the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers. The diction, intonation and expression are excellent. In this album the choir is unaccompanied, but there is no need for accompaniment, the variety of music styles and careful yet creative arrangements keep the album engaging.

For a more festive and elaborate, though not overwrought, offering by Shaw and his singers with the addition of symphony orchestra to the ensemble, there is: "The Many Moods of Christmas." It is a classic favorite for many American lovers of choral music, myself included.

Giving Alice Parker some due credit, my favorite arrangement of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is hers. She creatively weaves the old plainsong melody into a mysterious wonder that celebrates the message of the text. It is a classic which occurs on several albums; you probably have heard it. Even if you have, it is worth listening to again. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYGkS6gNync

Robert Shaw and Alice Parker are often credited with the resurrection of the art of fine choral singing in the United States. This resurrection began around 1950 and peaked perhaps in the 80s. And while the two were hardly the only reason, they were a very significant, if not primary, factor. Unfortunately the art is waning again in America as "worship teams" replace most church choirs. It is also very unfortunate that to hear anything remotely traditional in a sacred Christmas music, you quite possibly may be heading for someplace other than your own church on a Sunday.

I recently attended a children's Christmas program put on in an evangelical church where some of my family attend. The concert had a lot of "contemporary" music, with drum beat, jaunty, syncopated rhythms and almost incomprehensible melodies. The kids sang these moderately well, but regularly had trouble with words and melodies, not to mention rhythm. Magically a section of old carols with "square" rhythms and simpler melodies appeared, also magically (not to me) the diction, intonation, volume and timbre improved so vastly that it could hardly have been possible for anyone not to notice. And to be honest, it appeared that the children enjoyed those songs more. If I would have known the director I would have made a remark to her about that, perhaps I should not have been so polite.

The Brits, always lovers and creators of many carols are also responsible for a good number of excellent Christmas recordings. The Choir of King's College, Cambridge is perhaps the most prolific and best known of these. Their album "Carols from King's College, Cambridge - 25 of the most popular carols" includes simple a cappella pieces as well as festive selections with instrumental accompaniment. The dynamic range (volume) is a bit extreme so that some of the carols are almost too quiet and a few too loud. A little monitoring of the volume control, though annoying, may be necessary. For me, their simpler albums are better, and an example is: "O Come All Ye Faithful: Favourite Christmas Carols." As a general rule though, probably all of their albums (Christmas or otherwise) are very good to excellent; many lovers of choral music consider them to be one of the preeminent ensembles in the world.

Another British recording I like very much is: "Christmas with the Academy" by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chorus and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and Sir Neville Marriner. The orchestra and chorus balance and complement each other. Many of the arrangements are the same or similar to those on other albums, but this album has its own charm which keeps me coming back to it annually. A couple of the less common selections which lend the album some of this charm are: theopening and rather rare “Past Three O’clock,” and the spritely German “Singet und Klinget ihrKinderlein.”

Most of the recordings by St. John's College are quite good as well. If you are not a fan of the "hooty" or pure tone of the King's College Choir, the recordings by St. John's may be more to your liking. Otherwise they have much in common with the recordings by King's.

For something less traditional: a tasteful album of jazz piano stylings, "Quiet Christmas" by Beegie Adair. It is perfect for an evening by the fireplace or as music to welcome guests to a New Year's or casual Christmas party. Adair plays with elegance and though her stylings are transparent, even simple, they sparkle with jazz chords and flourishes.

Carols as inspiration:

Many classical masters have created some sort of Christmas music; usually festive or grandiose in scope.The list includes Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” the first Part of Handel’s “Messiah,” Berlioz’s “L'Enfance du Christ,” Saint-Saëns’ “Oratorio de Noël,” (a lovely piece), Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and very many other works by less well known composers. In a sort of contrast to these more grandiose works, a number of composers and musicians through history and even now have turned to the humble carol as their inspiration:

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Messe de Minuit pour Noël" is a charming Christmas mass in which the individual movements are based, at least in some degree, on old French carols, most you probably won't recognize. It is still a pleasant composition. There are not many recordings available, though the ones I own or have sampled are all of good quality—mostly variations that would be minor or "matters of taste."

Ralph Vaughn Williams "Fantasia on Christmas Carols" is a delightfully British selection and arrangement of some old carols. It is a work for chorus, orchestra and baritone soloist that masterfully combines the simplicity of the old carols with the lush choral and orchestral style characteristic of the composer. Vaughn Williams was not fond of the “stuffy,” often sentimental, hymn-carols of the 19thCentury, so he chose older carols for this composition. One of my favorite carols, the "Sussex Carol," is prominent in the "Fantasia." You will have to find the "Fantasia" on albums with other music, since it runs for only about 12 minutes. There are a number of recordings and YouTube "videos."

One slightly eccentric addition to my list is Victor Hely-Hutchinson's "Carol Symphony." It is rather serious (in a Haydn-esque way) orchestral creation using many common carol tunes as the melodic material. You will recognize most or all of them. This work is certainly not on par with any of the noteworthy composers of "classical" music (Bach, Handel, Mozart, et al), but as a Christmas diversion it is quite enjoyable. There are a few recordings, most of which are on YouTube. Had not Hely-Hutchinson died young, we might have had more worthwhile compositions from him.

While Benjamin Britten is not a composer for everyone’s taste, his “Ceremony of Carols” is engaging, at times charming, and generally worthwhile. Some of the compositional devices he uses—despite their 20thCentury sound to our ears—are actually old modal or medieval conventions. There is some 20th Centurydissonance, but it is not grating or brash. Britten’s melodic material is mostly his own invention, but most of the texts he selected are old or ancient. Many of the melodies he created, however, have an “old” feel to them; he sometimes uses the lilting, dance rhythms, as well.

Finally I recommend, if it is at all in your power to do so, attend  church or local choral Christmas concerts, especially if they include old, traditional or classical music.  Caveat: check with the group to make sure they will be performing real Christmas music—some groups have caved to the pressure of the times and now lean toward secular “holiday” music or modern “serious” works that may leave you wanting. (For choral groups looking for fresh material, there currently is a surprising number of young composers and arrangers using more listenable, tonal techniques for their creations; despite that fact manygroups still favor performing music in either the “pop” style or choose the grating dissonance championed by 20th Century composers.) The non-profit, private groups that still put on fairly traditional concerts are often debris from churches which have dismantled their choirs in order to switch to “contemporary”music. These singers’ normal means of expressing their love of great choral music has been severed from its source, the church; even so many of these orphaned musicians are trying to keep the flame from dying by participating in these other groups, and they deserve some support; you probably will have a pleasant listening experience as well.

Note on formatting:. Since Dr. Fleming and I have the same transatlantic-cross-platform limitations we had for my previous posting, I have foregone most formatting of text (bold, italics, etc.) in hopes of avoiding some of the earlier issues. Therefore I decided to use the old convention of putting quotation marks around titles and other emphasized words.


The Fleming Foundation

5 Responses

  1. Raymond Olson says:

    Thank you, Mr. Wihowski. A very good advisor for the season, to which let me add the Christmas Mass (Vianočná) and Slovak carol settings by Edmund Pascha (pronounced, I’ve been told, Push-a), eighteenth-century works incorporating folk instruments in the accompaniments. These can be heard via YouTube; recordings are rather scarce.

  2. David Wihowski says:

    Mr. Olson, The Edmund Pascha music is delightful. Thanks mentioning it. (I am listening to the Kyrie and hear more dance rhythms…)

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Last night, our neighbors, who are relatives of our landlord/friend, invited us to a party of perhaps 2 dozen of their friends. Every year they have this party and bring a folk-ensemble that plays old Sicilian Christmas music and the guests sing along in Sicilian. Since they handed out lyrics, I did my best. I’ll see if I can post a brief video clip. Wonderful eveni

  4. David Wihowski says:

    Dr. Fleming, A video clip would be a real treat!

  5. Ben says:

    Merry Christmas!