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):
- The Lord At First Did Adam Make
- When God At First Created Man
- A Virgin Most Pure
- When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was
- Hark, Hark! What News The Angels Bring
- Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night (You may recognize this one since it’s still a popular carol.)
- God’s Dear Son Without Beginning
- 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.