Forgotten Carols of Jane Austen’s Time

Because of laws restricting festivites at Christmastime, Christmas carols weren’t as common in the Regency Era as they are now. However, country people continued to sing carols in their homes and sometimes in churches. In 1822, shortly after Jane Austen’s death, Davies Gilbert, a native of Cornwall, published a collection of carols from his childhood in the West of England, which wasn’t too far from where the Austens lived. (You can find the entire volume here.)

I suspect that Jane may have been familiar with a few of these carols. Here is the first in the volume,entitled “The Lord at First Did Adam Make.”

This adaptation is an improvement on the original melody, but the words are the same.

Davies Gilbert gives us insight into country Christmas traditions in his preface:

“The following carols or Christmas songs were chanted to the tunes accompanying them, in Churches on Christmas Day, and in private houses on Christmas Eve, throughout the West of England, up to the latter part of the late century.

“The Editor is desirous of preserving them in their actual forms . . . on account of the delight they afforded him in his childhood; when the festivities of Christmas Eve were anticipated by many days of preparation and prolonged through several weeks by repetitions and remembrances.

“Christmas Day, like every other great festival, has prefixed to it in the calendar a Vigil or Fast; and in Catholic countries Mass is still celebrated at midnight after Christmas eve, when austerities cease, and rejoicings of all kinds succeed. Shadows of these customs were, till very lately, preserved in the Protestant West of England. The day of Christmas Eve was passed in an ordinary manner; but at seven or eight o’clock in the evening, cakes were drawn hot from the oven; cyder or beer exhilarated the spirits in every house; and the singing of Carols took the place of Psalms in all the Churches, especially at afternoon service, the whole congregation joining; and at the end it was usual for the Parish Clerk to declare, in a loud voice, his wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy new year to all the Parishioners.

Here is another of these carols adapted for modern choirs. It is called “A Virgin Most Pure”:


In all, the carols he shared were as follows (click on each title to link to the words to each carol):

  1. The Lord At First Did Adam Make
  2. When God At First Created Man
  3.  A Virgin Most Pure
  4. When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was
  5. Hark, Hark! What News The Angels Bring
  6. Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night (You may recognize this one since it’s still a popular carol.)
  7. God’s Dear Son Without Beginning
  8. Let All That Are To Mirth Inclined

The following video contains a modern adaptation of “Hark, Hark! What News the Angels Bring”:

In 1823, Gilbert published a second volume, which included the words to “The First Noel” as well as eleven other carols.

According to The Oxford Book of Carols, the Christmas carol continued to dwindle for many years after Jane Austen’s death. Even Charles Dickens likely didn’t know many carols. He did, however, do his part to bring them back. I’ve always loved the 1984 TV version of A Christmas Carol, and I was delighted to learn through my research that many of the carols sung in the movie were old enough to be sung at the time–though it was very unlikely that many people knew them.



26 Responses to Forgotten Carols of Jane Austen’s Time

  1. I can’t remember whether I have this collection or not. I went through a big, big thing with carols some years ago, when I wanted to do a record of them and was looking for unusual ones. You are right that the Oxford Book is a great starting place, and gives a lot of history about the early songs and about the revival of interest in the 19th century. (Note: the citation in Dickens is from the time when the carols had been revived.) AND it’s a great collection, of course. One thing I often point out to people who may not be very religious and therefore think the carols don’t hold interest for them, is that, in western countries, the oldest dozen songs the average person knows are very likely to be Christmas carols. The average person simply doesn’t know any other songs that are 5 or 6 hundred years old!

    As an American, I have to report that very, very few carols were brought over with people who settled in Appalachia (who often tended to be Scots-Irish, for starts). An exception that proves the rule is “The Cherry Tree Carol,” which is, after all, a Child ballad, and exactly the kind of story-song that was preserved in homes all over Britain. There are some fine American carols, of course, but the older English ones mostly came over later. Elizabeth Poston’s wonderful little collections for Penguin included some excellent Appalachian carols, and she is also responsible for an utterly beautiful setting of the shape note hymn called “The Apple Tree” which is now sung at Christmas by some choirs in England. Not really a carol in the traditional sense, perhaps, but glorious in its own right.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about these beautiful old songs.

  2. It is now after Christmas but I am enjoying these lovely selections – the first two new to me and the last one with obvious changes to the Hark the Herald Angels Sing (?) with which we are familiar. Thank you for bringing this information and the songs to our notice. Happy New Year.

  3. Come to Appalachia. So many of our settlers came here during this time, and were cut off from “civilization” due to the mountainous terrain. Some of these are in our heritage, and others with a very similar “sound”, as well. Not difficult to imagine these carols, and others like them, being sung in small mountain log cabins, and at “meeting houses”, as the early churches were typically called.

  4. Some countries had and have again Advent Carols, songs of waiting, longing, yearning. St john’s Anglican Church in historic Fremantle Western Australia has an Advent Carol Service each year.

    • Yes, I’ve heard of advent carols, but I don’t know much about them. Thank you for pointing this out. Personally, I would enjoy advent carols plus 12 days of Christmas carols after Christmas.

  5. I am interested in your first sentence… Because of laws restricting festivites at Christmastime, (Blink… ooohhh, new information!) Could you expand on that or give a citation, pretty please?

    • I got the information from “The Oxford Book of Carols” published by Oxford University Press 1964 by Percy Dearmer, R Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw.

      “In 1647 the Puritan Parliament abolished Christmas and other festivities altogether.”

      “Thus, most of our old carols were made during the two centuries and a half between the death of Chaucer in 1400 and the ejection of the Reverend Robert Herrick from his parish by Oliver Cromwell’s men in 1647.”

      “The old masques and carols did not recover after the Restoration.”


  6. In Dickens’ Christmas Carol there is the following passage, “The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!’ Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror,” so I suspect carols were not as uncommon as your source says. For an account of Christmas celebrations in rural England in Austen’s time you might also read Washington Irving’s “Old Christmas” from his Sketch Book. (It always bothers me that I can’t write titles correctly online, but you will know what I mean.) It mentions several carols. As it mentions one of the guests, a young officer, was at Waterloo, it dates the events fairly accurately.

    • Good catch, Dorothy. The Oxford Book of Carols did mention the Washington Irving reference, but I don’t think they mentioned that reference from Dickens. I have read A Christmas Carol so many times, but I didn’t remember that little passage until you commented.

    • I’m afraid I’m a bit of a music freak. I’m glad you enjoy the carols too. My brother gave me the Oxford Book of Carols about ten years ago, and it is so fun to read the preface and to see how old some of the carols are.

  7. Thanks Rebecca. The only carol I recognized was While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night. I do have an International Book of Carols but not of these are listed.

  8. Thank you for sharing such an interesting post. In listening to the songs I was impressed that, though I did not recognize all the words, the music sounds heavenly. I could imagine Jane listening to these works, which gives them a whole new dimension. It definitely put me in the Christmas spirit.

    • Thanks for commenting, Brenda. They definitely have a different sound, don’t they? The words and themes are quite different from modern carols. They seem to be more in line with John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

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