Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the forgotten carols of Jane Austen’s time. I enjoyed the topic so much and received such a good response, that I’ve decided to return to the topic today.
The Puritan Parliament abolished Christmas along with Christmas carols in 1647. Though King Charles II ended the ban on Christmas in 1660, many clergymen still disapproved of the celebration. Christmas carols were, therefore, not often sung in churches during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Though the popularity of Christmas carols dwindled, some continued to carry on the tradition of the Christmas carol. In various parts of England, it was a tradition to print the carols on broadsheets, so that people could sing them at home, in dissenting congregations, and while caroling to their neighbors.
The Oxford Book of Carols notes:
The American visitor, Washington Irving, in 1820 was surprised one Christmas night, also in Yorkshire, to hear beautiful music from rustics: ‘I had scarcely got into bed’, he writes in his Sketch Book, ‘when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band, which I concluded to be the waits from the neighboring village. They went round the house playing under the windows’; he listened with ‘hushed delight’, and notes half apologetically that ‘even the sound of the waits, rude as may be their minstrelsy, breaks upon the mid-watches of a winter night with the effect of perfect harmony’.
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 have shared some of Gilbert’s carols in my previous blog post, and today I’d like to share three more of them. This is one of them, entitled “Let All that Are to Mirth Inclined.”
Another selection from Gilbert’s collection is called “When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was”, otherwise known as “Righteous Joseph”. The video I’m sharing contains a Celtic-inspired version. Irish music was popular in the Austen home, so I like to think Jane would have enjoyed this version.
Most of the carols that were sung during this time had been written between 1400 and 1647. This next carol, “Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” is one of the only exceptions. It was published in 1698. (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was another exception. It was published in 1782.)
As you can tell from this collection, the most popular carols of the time seem to have been religious hymns. I can’t help but think that people were still trying to prove the Puritans wrong when they decried Christmas carols as unholy. Perhaps, however, the jollier, more irreverent carols still existed, and these published carols were meant to replace them. It’s hard to know.
In addition to the carols I’ve mentioned in Gilbert’s books, it is also likely that Jane Austen would have been familiar with the following carols:
“On Christmas Night, All Christians Sing” This one is familiar to me because it’s in the George C. Scott version of “A Christmas Carol”.
“Dives and Lazarus”. This is a song I had not heard before. It was based on the bible story of a rich man who neglected to care for a poor man. (Click on the link on the title for the words to the carol.) I believe Charles Dickens shared a similar story in A Christmas Carol.
“The Moon Shines Bright”. This is another one I had never heard, and the lyrics are definitely on the morbid and didactic side. It’s easy to see why this one is no longer popular. The tune is rather beautiful, however.
To brighten your spirits after that last one, I’m going to return to a more familiar tune. “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen”
I’d like to end with “The Holly and the Ivy”. This has long been one of my favorites. It has such a mystical quality to it. I can just imagine carolers singing this on a snowy Christmas night.