This post originally appeared on Austen Authors in December 2016. I thought you might enjoy it, given the time of the year.
As anyone who knows me will attest, I love music, and I also love Christmas. But while do enjoy Santa Claus and Jingle Bells, I am more partial to sacred music which has, at its heart, a message of the birth of the Savior of the world.
Thus, for my post this month, I thought it might be an interesting idea to talk about Christmas carols, but with a twist. Singing Christmas carols and wassailing was not a custom of Regency times; most of the information I uncovered suggests it was more prominent in Victorian times. But our favorite Regency author still would have been familiar with Christmas carols, and would have sung them with her family, at church, and during events of the neighborhood in which she lived.
If I was creating a comprehensive list of favorite Christmas carols, I would include many that do not fit in this list. O Holy Night is a personal favorite, but it was not written until the 1850s. The Huron Carol is beloved in Canada and it is certainly old enough, dating back to the 17th century in the original Native language. But it was not translated into English until the 20th century, and I doubt it made its way across the ocean to the old world until fairly recently. I love I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, the hopeless “And in despair I bowed my head, ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said” to the transcendent “Till, ringing, singing, on its way, the world revolved from night to day, A Song, a chime, a chant sublime, Of peace on earth, good will to men!” which is one of my favorite lines in any Christmas song. But again, it was composed much later than the Regency period. Even Silent Night, which most historians think was written in 1818, was a year after Jane Austen’s death, and was written in Germany, not to be translated until later.
Still, there are lots of good hymns to choose from. Here then, in ascending order, are my five favorite hymns that Jane Austen likely would have known and sung:
5. While Shepherd Watched Their Flocks By Night
This hymn, which tells the story of the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, has long been a stable of sacred Christmas carols. The original version dates to the 18th century, and in researching it, I was surprised how many tunes it has been set to. The most popular and well-known version is the Winchester version, which Jane Austen would have known, but personally, I like the one sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is known as the Yorkshire Carol version, which you can find if you search YouTube.
Greensleeves is the first entrant which boasts a minor key, which I have always loved. Minor keys often convey a slightly mournful tone, and are often beautifully haunting melodies. Greensleeves has existed as a ballad since the late 16th century, and the lyrics have been adapted to Christmas, New Years, and many other occasions. Any of my readers who have read My Brother’s Keeper will note that I used the song in that story. Since then, the immensely popular What Child is This? was written to the same tune, and now it is almost impossible to find a recording of any other version. No Christmas list can be complete without Greensleeves somewhere on it. I have included a link to the Mannheim Steamroller version which, though instrumental, is a beautiful rendition.
3. Adeste Fideles
Today this hymn is better known as O Come, All Ye Faithful, and though the English version of the hymn was not written until the mid-19th century, the earliest surviving versions of the Latin version bear the signature of John Francis Wade, who was an English hymnist. Other authors have been suggested and the true origin is uncertain, but it would certainly have been known in Jane Austen’s time. A hymn with beautiful harmony, there is nothing quite like an entire congregation standing and belting out this traditional favorite. This version, by Bing Crosby, is also an especial favorite.
2. Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
I had a difficult time choosing between putting this one or the next at number one, and either would be marvelous choice. On any given day, I might change the order. With Bring a Torch we get into hymns that are a little more obscure today. It can be difficult to find a version of it on most Christmas collections as it has largely fallen from our common repertoire of hymns. But the beautiful music, exhorting the maidens to visit the babe Jesus’s stall is a true masterpiece of Christmas music, and of music in general. This hymn originated in France in the 16th century, was translated into English in the 18th. I like to imagine Jane Austen, sitting around the pianoforte with her brothers and sisters, and singing this beautiful hymn on Christmas Eve. This is a version by Robert Shaw Chorale, though the instrumental version by Mannheim Steamroller is also gorgeous.
1. Coventry Carol
This last hymn might be a bit of a stretch, though it is still possible that Jane Austen might have heard it. The Coventry Carol dates to the 16th century, and was performed in the city of Coventry as part of a Christmas play entitled The Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors, which was a depiction of the Christmas story from the gospel of Matthew. The song itself refers to the massacre of the innocents, ordered by king Herod to try and kill the Christ child when his trickery with the wise men did not work. A haunting, minor key melody, the words evoke the despair of the mothers of Bethlehem, and it depicts Mary singing her lament to the Christ child before she and Joseph were told to flee to Egypt. The harmony in this hymn is sublime, and it is almost impossible to listen to without emotion. It is usually sung a cappella, which is another point in its favor. The words do not refer to Christ’s birth, but it is still used as a Christmas hymn, and is a beautiful melody and an essential part of any Christmas collection.
Honorable mention for this list goes to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (which I almost included in place of While Shepherd Watched Their Flocks By Night), Joy to the World, and I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In. There are many others such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and The First Noel and so on. I hope you enjoyed this journey into Regency Christmas carols as much as I enjoyed researching them!
Now, let’s have some fun. What is your favorite Christmas song? Regency, before, or after, it doesn’t matter. Please reply with your favorite carol!