My favourite Christmas Carols

Posted by admin | December 25, 2011 3

Why should somebody who believes Man created God Blog about Christmas Carols? Well, maybe because they are an important cultural artefact in their own right, an important part of our musical tradition and the culture of communities who came together in the dark and hungry nights of mid winter. They are not Folk Songs for they were normally liturgical hymns written in Latin by clergymen. But in times of yore they would have been performed in churches by the same musicians and singers from the local community who performed at festivals so the cross over to / from the folklore tradition was direct.

Folk band at Xmas outside the Marienkirche, Lübeck

Indeed on one of my visits to the wonderful German medieval city of Lübeck for the Xmas Markets I was struck by the traditional folk musicians playing outside the Marienkirche. Inside the resident musician and organist in the 1600’s was one Dieterich Buxtehude. He laid the foundations of Baroque Music and was so renowned that in 1705, Johann Sebastian Bach, then a young man of twenty, walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck, a distance of more than 400 kilometres (250 mi), and stayed nearly three months to hear him play, and, as Bach explained, “to comprehend one thing and another about his art”.

The singing of carols is the oldest of Christmas customs. The ancient tradition of carols was revitalised after nearly two centuries of dormancy in the years 1823 to 1848. You might ask, what is a Christmas carol? The question is not as silly as it may at first appear. Singing at festivals is as old as festivals themselves. Ancient Egyptians and even the Druids used music in their sacred rites. And so did the Romans and the Greeks. The earliest Christians sang psalms and hymns during their festivals and the vigils of their saints. Sacred or profane, it is obvious that music and singing was very much a part of celebrations and festivals. Oxford, 18 miles from us, has a rich musical scene and many choirs and the Oxford Book of Carols spearheaded the revival of Carols in England from 1820’s onward.

Xmas Market in front Oxford Castle

The term “carol” originally meant songs intermingled with dancing. As time went along, it was applied to festive songs in general. Since Christmas is the most festive period of the year, carols came to be thought of almost exclusively as Christmas carols. It is not clear whether the word carol derives from the French “carole” or the Latin “carula” meaning a circular dance. In any case the dancing seems to have been abandoned quite early.

One of my favourite carols in the plainsong tradition is Gaudete (“rejoice” in Latin), a sacred Christmas carol, composed sometime in the 16th century. The song was published in Piae Cantiones, a collection of Finnish/Swedish sacred songs published in 1582. No music is given for the verses, but the standard tune comes from older liturgical books.

Oxford Street, London


The Latin text is a typical medieval song of praise, which follows the standard pattern for the time – a uniform series of four-line stanzas, each preceded by a two-line refrain (in the early English carol this was known as the burden). Carols could be on any subject, but typically they were about the Virgin Mary, the Saints or Christmastide themes. Gaudete is along with Pie Jesu one of only two songs in Latin to be a Top 10 hit in the UK charts.

Gaudete – Latin

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!

Tempus adest gratiæ Hoc quod optabamus,
Carmina lætitiæ Devote reddamus.

Deus homo factus est Natura mirante,
Mundus renovatus est A Christo regnante.

Ezechielis porta Clausa pertransitur,
Unde lux est orta Salus invenitur.

Ergo nostra contio Psallat iam in lustro;
Benedicat Domino: Salus Regi nostro.

Gaudete – English

Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born Of the Virgin Mary — rejoice!

The time of grace has come—This that we have desired,
Verses of joy Let us devoutly return.

God has become man, To the wonderment of Nature,
The world has been renewed By the reigning Christ.

The closed gate of Ezekiel Is passed through,
Whence the light is born, Salvation is found.

Therefore let our gathering Now sing in brightness
Let it give praise to the Lord: Greeting to our King.

Xmas Tree in front of the GPO, Dublin

Probably the most famous Irish Xmas Carol is The Wexford Carol (Irish: Carúl Loch Garman). This is a traditional religious Irish Christmas carol originating from County Wexford, and specifically, Enniscorthy (whence its name), and dating to the 12th century. The subject of the song is that of the nativity of Jesus Christ.

The song is sometimes known by its first verse, “Good people all this Christmas time.”

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done,
In sending His belovèd Son.

With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas Day;
In Bethlehem upon the morn
There was a blest Messiah born.

The night before that happy tide
The noble virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town.

But mark how all things came to pass:
From every door repelled, alas!
As long foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble oxen stall.

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep;
To whom God’s angels did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear.

“Prepare and go”, the angels said,
“To Bethlehem, be not afraid;
For there you’ll find, this happy morn,
A princely Babe, sweet Jesus born.”

With thankful heart and joyful mind,
The shepherds went the babe to find,
And as God’s angel has foretold,
They did our Saviour Christ behold.

Within a manger He was laid,
And by His side the virgin maid
Attending to the Lord of Life,
Who came on earth to end all strife.

My favourite version is the 1991 album by the Irish folk group the Chieftains with Nanci Griffith – “Bells of Dublin”. This album is named after the Dublin tradition of welcoming in the New Year by gathering at the centre of the Old Viking City at Christchurch Cathedral to hear the bells at midnight. The twelve bells of Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin, date back to 1738, and are rung twice every Sunday and also peal on special occasions such as the inauguration of the President. As a tradition the people of Dublin City gather in Christchurch Place to hear the bells ‘ring-in’ the New Year. The bells of Dublin are part of the fabric of life in Dublin, as are their ‘voice’ sounds and patterns, and this has been incorporated into the opening piece on the album and made into an underlying theme for the proceedings.

Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin

There is however another substantial Dublin Xmas musical connection as Handel’s Messiah (HWV 56) was first performed in the “Antient Musik Hall” in Fishamble Street, Dublin in a gala in aid of the Foundling Hospital. This is an oratorio by George Frideric Handel based on a libretto by Charles Jennens. Composed in the summer of 1741 and premiered in Dublin on the 13 April 1742, Messiah is Handel’s most famous creation and is among the most popular works in Western choral literature. The very well-known “Hallelujah” chorus is part of Handel’s Messiah. What is also notable about the billboard for the Dublin premiere was that, due to space restrictions “Ladies are requested not to wear hoops and Gentlemen are requested not to wear swords.” Even today there is always a performance of “Messiah” in Dublin before Xmas, normally for a weekly season in the Carmelite Church, Whitefriar Street, where in addition to the paying audience one St. Valentine listens from his resting place below the high altar.

St. Valentine in Dublin

Dublin’s Fair City

Site of “Antient Musik Hall” Fishamble
Street, Dublin
George Frideric Handel

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