They say the old songs are the best and when it comes to Christmas Carols they may well be right.

Carols fell from favour in England after the Reformation because of their frivolity and were rarely sung in churches until the 1880s when the Bishop of Truro (later Archbishop of Canterbury) drew up the format for the Nine Lessons and Carols service, which has remained in use ever since.

In this article we look at the origins of several popular carols both sacred and secular.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (1700)

WORDS : Nahum Tate
MUSIC : Handel (tune of ‘Winchester Old’)

WhileShepherdsWatchedNahum Tate was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1692 until 1715; he is also remembered for giving Shakespeare‘s tragedy King Lear a happy ending. But his most enduring legacy was in the world of Christmas carols, as he penned the words to ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’, published in 1700. The poem/carol focuses on the visit from the Angel of the Lord to announce the birth of Christ.

“While Shepherds Watched” was “the only Christmas hymn to be approved by the Church of England in the 18th century and this allowed it to be disseminated across the country with the Book of Common Prayer.” This was because most carols, which had roots in folk music, were considered too secular and thus not used in church services until the end of the 18th century.

The Holly and the Ivy

WORDS : Anonymous
MUSIC : Unknown (1st published in Cecil Sharp’s 1911 collection English Folk-Carols)

hollyNobody knows who penned the words to this Christmas song; it is usually ascribed the status of ‘traditional’. The words were certainly in print by the early nineteenth century. However, it is Nahum Tatethought that it may have been composed as early as 1710. The song focuses on the traditional Christmas plants used to decorate the house at Christmas time. As such – and because holly was sacred to druids – the poem has more pagan connotations than many of the other carols on this article.

In the Bleak Midwinter (1904)

WORDS : Christina Rossetti
MUSIC : Harold Darke and Gustav Holst

In_the_bleek_midwinterVictorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) composed the words to this carol: it was originally written as a poem titled ‘A Christmas Carol’, in 1872 – 29 years after Dickens’s famous book of that name had been published. Rossetti died before it was even published, in 1904. Two years later it was first set to music: the most famous settings are by composers Harold Darke and Gustav Holst.

Away in a Manger (1884)

WORDS : Anonymous
MUSIC : James R. Murray

away in a mangerWhen the lyrics to this carol were first published in 1884 in the Boston periodical The Myrtle, the writers attributed the original verses of the song to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, born in 1483. This is almost certainly not true – the words are found nowhere in Luther’s surviving writings – and the lyrics were most probably a product of the 19th century. Further verses were, at any rate, later added until the carol had taken the form it now has, by the early twentieth century. Another nativity scene focusing on the stable where Jesus Christ was born, this is among the most famous Christmas carols

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

WORDS : Anonymous
MUSIC : Unknown

We_Wish_You_A_Merry_ChristmasLittle is known about the origins of this carol, usually taken to be a traditional wassail (drinking) song – certainly, it emphasises the ‘eat, drink and be merry’ side to the festive season. However, we do know that the song originated in the West Country, and probably arose out of the tradition of Christmas carol-singers being given tasty treats by rich neighbours on Christmas Eve. After the singers had regaled their wealthy patrons with a few songs, they would be rewarded with ‘figgy pudding’ – similar to our modern Christmas puddings.