The Tradition of “Christmas Carols”

Parts of this post were originally featured on Austen Authors, brought to us from Rebecca Jamison. I have added to what she shared and offer more of the history of the Christmas Carols than she did in her original post, but have kept some of her YOUTUBE examples. 

 “Christmas Carols” were originally called so because they were a piece of vocal music in what is known as “carol form.” The word “carol” comes to us from the Old French word carole, which means a circular dance accompanied by singers. These were popular dance songs from as early as the 1150s. They became processional songs in the 14th Century and were sung at festivals. Other such “carols” were written specifically to accompany the mystery plays, for example the Coventry Carol, written some time before 1534. [W. J. Phillips, Carols; Their Origin, Music, and Connection with Mystery-Plays (Routledge, 1921, Read Books, 2008), p. 24.]

 800px-WLANL_-_legalizefreedom_-_De_kindermoord_te_Bethlehem.jpg The “Coventry Carol” dates from the 16th Century. It was originally performed in Coventry, England as part of the mystery play entitled, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts what is known as the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod orders all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed, as told in Chapter Two of the Gospel of Matthew. The song takes the form of a lullaby sung by the mothers of the targeted children. The author is unknown; the oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known setting of the melody dates from 1591. [Studwell, W. E. (1995). The Christmas Carol Reader. Haworth Press. pp. 15 ]

Before the Protestant Reformation, carols were performed in Latin by the clergy of the Catholic church. With the Reformation, the carols were brought “back to the people.” Music was translated into the native language of those who spoke it. The Protestant church also made a concerted effort to break the hold the Catholic Church had on what we would term “sacred music.” Composers such as William Bryd composed motet-like  [a mainly vocal musical composition, of highly varied form and style, from the late medieval era to the present] works for Christmas that they termed carols; and folk-carols continued to be sung in rural areas. Nonetheless, some famous carols were written in this period, and they were more strongly revived from the nineteenth century and began to be written and adapted by eminent composers.

“Musically speaking, carol has a very specific definition: a song, characteristically of religious joy, associated with a given season, especially Christmas; in which uniform stanzas, or verses (V), alternate with a refrain, or burden (B), in the pattern B, V1, B, V2 . . . B. A great deal of traditional and popular Christmas music does not actually meet the strict definition of “carol”, and the term Christmas carol has come, in modern times, to colloquially refer to any song, in any of a variety of styles, which references Christmas, the Christmas season, or events in proximity to that season.

Laws restricted festivities at Christmastime, and Christmas carols were not 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, entitled, Some Ancient Christmas Carols…Formerly Sung in the West of England, which was not too far from where the Austens lived. (You can find the entire volume here.)

The first in the volume is entitled “The Lord at First Did Adam Make.” Wikipedia tells us, “The Lord at first did Adam make, alternatively The Lord at first had Adam made relates the events of Genesis, Chapter 3, relating the evils that have befallen humanity since the first fall and humanity’s subsequent redemption; during Advent, a traditional theme is of the birth of Jesus being the coming of the “Second Adam.”  

“In Davies Gilbert’s preface to his 1822 publication, he writes “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, however distorted by false grammar or by obscurities, as specimens of times now passed away, and of religious feelings superseded by others of a different cast…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.

“It was popularised by its inclusion in John Stainer and Henry Ramsden Bramley’s Christmas Carols, New an dOld of 1877, albeit in a Victorianised non-modal form, with a grammatically corrected text. In addition to Gilbert Davies’ collected version, another tune also exists and there are numerous textual variations, including additional verses.” 

Check out these versions on You Tube 

The old English carol “The Lord At First Did Adam Make” as arranged for pipe organ and performed by composer Lewis A. Kocher.

The Choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh, under the direction of Timothy Byram-Wigfield, perform a bouncy setting of the traditional text ‘The Lord at First Did Adam Make,’ arranged for SATB choir by St Mary’s organist Peter Backhouse.


The choir of St Patrick’s Donaghmore & St Michael’s Castlecaulfield, accompanied by Helen Hall, sing the traditional English carol “The Lord at first did Adam make” live at the annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols in St Patrick’s on Sunday 11th December 2011


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):

  1. The Lord At First Did Adam Make
  2. When God At First Created Man
  3.  A Virgin Most Pure
  4. When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was
  5. Hark, Hark! What News The Angels Bring
  6. Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night
  7. God’s Dear Son Without Beginning
  8. Let All That Are To Mirth Inclined


In 1823, Gilbert published a second volume, which included the words to “The First Noel” as well as eleven other carols.



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to The Tradition of “Christmas Carols”

  1. Glynis says:

    I hadn’t heard of any of these carols apart from While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night which I do like. In fact I like most of the carols I have sung since I was a child, especially Silent Night which we also used to sing in German at the Grammar School along with Oh Tannenbaum (Christmas Tree).
    I always used to love the candle light Carol service in our chapel. I don’t go now as I don’t like driving in the dark.
    I love the tapestry featured in the first Carol (better than the song I’m afraid)
    Thanks for sharing this Regina.

    • My son and daughter-in-law attend a non-demoninational church. When I go with them for special programs and the like, I miss the traditional hymns from my childhood.

  2. Buturot says:

    Thank you Regina for sharing. I am only familiar with 2 of these carols.This is very informative.

    • It sometimes amazes me how our views of religion has changed over the years. I love to hear the more traditional songs. Both the Cambridge and Oxford choirs have CDs that speak to vespers and traditional hymns.

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