One of the best parts of the holiday season (or the worst, depending on your perspective), is the singing of Christmas carols. Carols have a very specific definition of being a song or hymn that related to Christmas, and there are many out there both religious and secular. Their themes range from retelling the story of the nativity to espousing the goodwill of the season. Chances are if you sing Christmas carols, you’ll recognize one of the ten below, all of British origin.
I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)
A traditional English carol, “I Saw Three Ships” reportedly dates back to 17th-Century Derbyshire when it was first printed, though it wasn’t published officially until 1833 by a solicitor named William Sandys. One of the interesting aspects of the song is that it talks about the ships sailing into Bethlehem, which is many miles from any body of water.
God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen
Dating back to the 16th Century (and possibly earlier), the song is one of the oldest carols around, and the earliest printed edition was done in 1760. In the carol, the singer reminds the listener that there is no reason for despair because the birth of Christ means the triumph of good over evil. The song gets a reference in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as Ebenezer Scrooge chases off a caroler singing it in front of his counting house.
The Holly and the Ivy
Greenery in Christmas decorations was inherited from Pagan celebrations, and for Christmas, the evergreens came to symbolize the eternal life offered by Jesus Christ. A traditional Christmas hymn, “The Holly and the Ivy” is replete with similar symbolism, describing the holly as bearing the crown and the berry as red as Christ’s blood.
Sans Day Carol
A traditional Cornish piece, “Sans Day Carol” (or “Saint Day Carol”) was written in the 19th Century. Like many, it describes the birth of Jesus and also incorporates the symbolism of the holly. The lyrics specifically compare holly berries at their various stages of life to Jesus at his birth, during his life, and his death on the cross.
O Come, All Ye Faithful
There seems to be some speculation on who this hymn’s original author was (including King John IV of Portugal), but at least two of the supposed authors, John Reading and John Francis Wade, are English. The hymn was originally four verses, but later expanded to six, and exalts the virtues of Christ while also describing the Wise Men’s journey to visit the young Jesus.
Good King Wenceslas
“Good King Wenceslas” is one of those great carols that describes the spirit of Christmas, and in this case, specifically charity to the poor. In it, lyricist John Mason Neale retells the story of the Bohemian King Wenceslas who goes out on the Feast of St. Stephen (December 25, the Second Day of Christmas) to give alms to the poor. Wenceslaus, in reality, was a 10th Century Duke whose martyrdom gave birth to a Cult of Wenceslaus in Bohemia and England. He was later venerated and posthumously made a king.
Here We Come A-wassailing
“Wassailing” is actually the action of going door-to-door singing carols wishing good health. It doubles as both a Christmas and New Year’s song as the lyrics make reference to both holidays. In the past, it also referred to a drink made of ale, apples, spices, and mead that the house would offer to the carolers to help them keep warm.
The First Noel
Also known as “The First Nowell,” is another Cornish hymn, this one published in 1823 as another edited work of William Sandys. The song’s lyrics describe the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Shepherds as well as the journey of the Magi. The hymn has an unusual melody amongst English folk songs in that it repeats a musical phrase and is followed by a musical refrain that varies the phrase.
Deck the Halls
One of the most festive holiday songs, the melody for “Deck the Halls” dates back to 16th Century Wales while the lyrics were written by Scotsman Thomas Oliphant in 1862. There are a few variants of the lyrics, and the one known to most Americans is quite different than the original, which describes the merry drinking that goes on during the holiday as decorations are hung.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
While the original tune was by German composer Felix Mendelssohn, everything else about this song is decidedly English. Charles Wesley wrote the lyrics in 1739 and originally intended for his words to be married to slow and solemn music, but musician William H. Cummings had other ideas. Cummings adapted Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang” to Wesley’s lyrics and gave birth to a Christmas classic that is a favorite of choirs all over the United Kingdom.
Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!