Surprising stories behind some of the oldest Christmas carols
WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Christmas carols are one of our oldest holiday traditions.
In fact, some probably predate the holiday itself. We know music itself is ancient, dating back to before there was the written word.
The oldest music we have proof of is known as the “Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal” or “Hurrian Hymn No. 6.” It is essentially prayers set to music to Nikkal, Goddess of the orchards and wife of the moon god in the ancient Amorite-Canaanite city of Ugarit in what is modern-day Northern Syria. The hymns are believed to date back to around 1400 BCE.
The earliest Christmas carols were hymns explicitly devoted to the holiday that started appearing around the 4th century ACE. Some of those early hymns are still used today in the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Church.
While they certainly can count as the first Christmas holiday-specific songs, it’s difficult to call them carols as they don’t lend themselves to being something one would sing outside of a church setting.
We don’t really know for sure how Christmas caroling began. The best guess is that it was probably part of the oral tradition that surrounded winter solstice celebrations prior to the spread of Christianity across Europe.
Now, I could explain a ton of early European and English history, about the Britons, Anglo-Saxons, Norse, and Roman invasions to provide a lot of context to these traditions, but there’s a lot of information there. So, we’ll will try to condense it all as much as possible.
Caroling appears to have sprung from an Old Norse word that turned into an old English word, which became Wassail, a word meaning roughly “good health.” It was part of a feast that featured a warm punch. Someone started referring to that punch as Wassail.
The punch, which contained ale, spices, and probably some wine, was so good, someone thought to go from door to door to share it. It became a way to check on neighbors to see how they were faring the winter, and it’s possible the punch had some medicinal qualities as well.
Alcohol and singing tend to go hand in hand, and so Wassailing eventually became a door-to-door singing event so popular a song was written about it.
Here We Come A-Wassailing
So about that Wassail thing: We know the song is really old because of a clue in the song itself called an archaic intensifying prefix.
It goes back to that history stuff mentioned earlier. To be brief, the Britons were a Celtic people who inhabited England from the Bronze age until the Romans arrived.
The Romans eventually abandoned them, and the Anglo-Saxons moved in. The two cultures eventually melded into one with a distinct language, and then, the Normans invaded in 1066.
Many Old English words, the Anglo-Saxon language, were replaced with the Norman’s proto-German, which kind of sounded like a mixture of modern English, Dutch, and German.
With this new “Old English” language came new rules of grammar, and one of those changes was the end of that archaic intensifying prefix. A-wassailing is an archaic intensifying prefix.
So the “Here We Come A-Wassailing” song we sing today is from around the 1850s. However, it’s just a cover of one much older that we lost the lyrics for, that was written sometime before 1066.
Oh Christmas Tree
Some of you know this song by its German name, “O Tanenbaum.” Would you believe that it’s not a Christmas song?
It’s actually a Silesian folk song written sometime in the 16th century by composer Melchior Franck. It was originally titled “Ach Tanenbaum.”
The original song is just about the resilience and evergreen nature of the fir tree. Sometime in the 20th century, we don’t know when, the song was translated into English and became a song about the Christmas Tree.
Good King Wenceslas
So this one is really complicated because it has to do with the Holy Roman Empire, the feudal structure, cults, and Henry VIII.
We will start at the beginning. Good King Wenceslas wasn’t a king at all.
He was the Duke of Bohemia. Now, people tend to associate Bohemia with Germany or German speaking regions of Europe.
However, Bohemia is actually the Czech Republic and a Slavic region. In fact, Wenceslas is the Anglicized spelling.
His name was really Václav I. He died young but built many churches and was considered very pious and good.
After his death, a cult reportedly rose up, spreading the good word of Václav into places like Russia. He was quickly made a saint and was given the posthumous title of King.
Getting to the song about him, the melody is from a Spring Carol (yes, that’s an actual thing.) from the 13th Century called “Tempus adest floridum” which translates to “Eastertime Has Come.”
The words came much later in 1853. English hymn writer John Mason Neale was part of a movement that was working to incorporate Catholic ceremonies, saints days, and music back into the Anglican Church.
The Anglican Church came about because in the 16th century, Henry VIII broke the Church of England away from Catholicism so he could get divorced. Thankfully there are no carols about that.
A friend of Neale’s had given him an old Catholic hymnal from the 1500s, where he found the tune. He then took a story he had written earlier about Wenceslas in a children’s book and adapted it into lyrics for the song.
If you’ve never heard the song or have and don’t understand the lyrics, it’s about a miracle the King allegedly performed. While out with a Page attempting to deliver food and supplies to his lord who freezing and starving, the Page complains that they are going to freeze to death.
Wenceslas tells him to look for his footprints and step where he steps, and he will stay much warmer. He does, and he doesn’t freeze to death, and eventually safely arrives with Wenceslas at their destination.
God Rest You Merry Gentlemen
When Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe, it not only had an impact on literacy, it had a big impact on music. The printing press gave the means to codify music outside of the church.
Popular music, that stuff played in courts, inns, and taverns that you always see depicted as being played by mustachioed, lothario bards, dressed in tights with bright clothes and hats with a single giant feather plume coming out of the top, that type of music was taught from memory by ear. That is until the invention of the printing press. As you can imagine, a song first composed and written in the 1300s could probably change quite a bit in 200-300 years of being taught orally.
Thankfully, the printing press brought about something called the broadsheet. It was a single piece of paper on which music could be printed on. It was cheap and easy to mass produce.
Many of these broadsheets survive to this day. It’s how we are able to trace the origins of many songs.
Thanks to these sheets, the earliest copy we have of God Rest You Merry Gentlemen can be traced to the 1650s. It’s a bit different, but overall it’s the same meaning and message.
It was originally titled Sit You Merry Gentlemen. At some point prior to 1760, when another broadsheet was found, it changed to the song we know today as God Rest You Merry Gentlemen.
Because the broadsheet mostly preserved the song, it was able to survive, even getting mentioned in articles in the 1800s. It was so popular it was even referenced in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
What Child Is This?
This is another one that we can thank broadsheets for preserving this song’s melody. Many people already know that this carol borrows the melody of “Greensleeves.”
In fact, “Greensleeves” is often wrongly attributed to be a Christmas song. Given what the song is likely about, it is definitely not a Christmas song. Well, unless your family traditions are way beyond the norm.
Let’s start by saying that it’s likely “Greensleeves” is a really, really old song. However, the first written copy we can find is a broadsheet printed in England in 1580 with the title, “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves,” registered by one Richard Jones.
Then over the next year, six different versions of the song were published under various names by various composers, one being Richard Jones again. This points to the song maybe being a common tune with various different versions appearing over the years that someone finally decided to write down.
What seems to be the consensus about the subject of the song is that to put it delicately, she was a woman of shall we say, ill repute. The Roxanne of her time period, putting out that red lamp centuries before Sting and the Police, came up with their own tune.
Somewhere around 1865, William Chatterton Dix, an English writer of hymns and carols, set his lyrics “What Child Is This” to the tune of Medival Roxanne and a Christmas classic was born.
Oddly enough, it was far more popular in the United States than in England. However, that might be because England may have been too busy secretly snickering about the bawdy origins of the tune for it to be taken seriously as a Christmas carol.
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