December 12th: Caroling, caroling
We learn them at school, we sing them once or twice a year and recall them for life, the first verses at least. Christmas carols are as familiar to us as nursery rhymes, the Lord’s Prayer, old episodes of Fawlty Towers and the National Anthem. They are both rousing and moving, and have been re-imagined by every choir, congregation and pop-star across the land. Carols are a huge part of British culture. Like old friends, I love to be reunited with them at Christmas time.
My reminiscences got me thinking about the origin of some of my favourite Christmas carols. ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which ranks among the heartiest of carols, turns out to be French, probably. It’s suspected that the pear tree was originally a juniper tree in which a joli perdrix (pretty partridge) would have sat. Apparently British native partridges do not perch in trees, but red-legged French ones do. Now you know.
‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’, with all its fabulously sustained ‘Glorias’, is a very old melody dating back to the 16th Century. The words, by English composer George Woodward, are much more recent and were first published in 1924. They’re written in a quasi-medieval style which was popular at the time, giving the impression that the carol is much older than it really is. Woodward was a fan of church bell-ringing and archaic poetry, hence all the ding-dongs and smatterings of Latin throughout the carol. A Christmas roof-raiser if ever there was one.
‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is a both a favourite of mine and a carol that brings on a nervous tick. I was required to sing the first verse solo at primary school. (The following spring I was offered Edelweiss, but then my voice broke.) To this day, I still have nightmares about feeling unable to take a breath during the performance. This carol is, however, a work of great beauty and poignancy. Sung well (i.e. not by me) it can move a man to tears. Little surprise then that ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ started life as a poem by Cecil Alexander, who also wrote ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘There is a Green Hill Far Away. Since 1919 ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ has opened the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College Chapel, Cambridge. The first verse is always sung solo and unaccompanied by a boy chorister, the second by the choir and the congregation join in from the third verse.
Finally, a little research into that family favourite ‘Jingle Bells’ reveals a colourful history. Composed by James Lord Pierpont in the 1850s, it was originally published under the title ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’. Today it’s one of the best known and most commonly sung American songs in the world. At the time of writing it had no connection with Christmas and was intended for the Thanksgiving season. Considered somewhat racy, ‘Jingle Bells’ was a drinking song, sung at parties where the guests would chink the ice in their glasses to the tune. Sleigh rides gave unescorted couples the opportunity to spend time together in distant woods or fields, no doubt resulting in ‘oh what fun’! There’s plenty of amusement and high jinx to be had in the later verses, although I have never heard most of them sung in the UK. Pierpont’s original tune is set to completely different lyrics in France, Spain, Germany and Sweden.
I’ve had great fun looking into the stories of these carols, so there may well be another instalment before advent is over. Let me know if you’d like to hear more. Fa la la la la, la la la la. TFG.
18 comments On "Advent Thought For The Day: 12"
Certainly would like to hear more! I’ve learned so much from your enjoyable writings, Dan. You can’t possibly be doing all of this in 30 minutes a day?! It’s a wonderful start to the day – as good as my JL beauty advent calendar haha! Thank you and have a great day.
I confess they are taking me considerably longer than 30 mins Julie!! At some point these posts may have to get a little shorter to allow for other things. Meanwhile I am thrilled you are enjoying them and the advent calendar.
That’s really interesting, we have taken these songs for granted since we were children, and they are so engrained we don’t give their origins any thought. In all the Christmas madness I really look forward to reading your advent posts, they are a welcome pause in the day. As your family are in Cornwall, like me, did you know where the Nine Lessons were written?! I’ll leave that for you to check out!
I’m enjoying reading your advent posts while I drink my first cuppa of the day. Brightens up these gloomy, December mornings. Thanks and Cheers!
Awww! I love carols. My favourite ones are Hark!The Herald, Silent Night, O holy night, Deck the halls with boughs of holly . We’ve got lots of our own Polish Christmas carols and songs too. As a teacher of English I am just teaching my students some of the contemporary and old English and American carols. Thank you for your post Dan.
Although I am not religious I do like to hear Christmas Carols and Once in Royal David’s City is a favourite. In the Bleak Midwinter, reminds me why I loathe winter! I recall singing Oh Christmas Tree at school in Latin, German and French! I actually preferred the German version for some reason! I am enjoying your advent thoughts – such a great idea Dan.
On the 12 days of Christmas, I think it’s more subtle than that.
Firstly, the older English versions of the carol don’t muck around with gold rings…
Find anything before the Victorian era, and the last seven verses are birds:
Seven swans a swimming
Six geese a laying
Five goldspinks [ which is a traditional word for what we now call a goldfinch]
Four colly-birds [… traditional word for a blackbird]
Three French hens
Two Turtles doves…
… and a Partridge, [which I’ll come to in a moment.]
It’s worth noting that until 1909, the tune in the five-gold verse was identical to the tune in the other 11 verses… but you couldn’t at the time copyright a traditional carol, you had to make changes, so the 1909 Novello publishing added the extra long notes…
… at which point, British people were singing “gold rings” already, but in the mid-20th century, Americans seemed to think that you had to have an extra syllable (to fit the extended tune), so that side of the Atlantic started singing “golden rings”
So, having gone from goldspinks, to gold rings, to golden rings, what about the partridge?
Well, back in 1867, we have sources that say the original was the bird’s name in English and French…
.. and a partridge, une perdrix… [pronounced pear-dree]
… which sort of ties in with the idea that the ruling classes, who still spoke French a fair bit, would eat both the English and French partridges, but under different names.
Those who didn’t speak French thought that the song was “pear tree” since of “perdix.”
Thank you Mark. In the time and the space I am allowing myself for these posts I did not quite have the opportunity to flesh this fascinating story out, so I appreciate you adding more depth and colour as, I am sure, does everyone else reading this. Dan
I would love to hear more… As a matter of fact I am headed over to Youtube to listen to “Ding Dong Merrily On High” and “Once in David’s Royal City” two carols that I don’t think I have ever heard.
I can imagine your angst just thinking about your past performances. I bet you were a hit despite how you felt.
You got it!!
Loving these daily advent posts Dan – thank you so much for making the effort! I love Christmas carols and it’s really interesting hearing about their origins. One of my favourite books is a Christmas book by Enid Blyton that retells stories about the old Christmas traditions – it’s a tradition of it’s own in our family now – I’ve had it over 50 years!
When I read this piece this morning I felt rather jaded at the prospect of carols. Too many pop stars trying to make them their own, too much time in overheated stores while Carols With A Twist Muzak belts out. But this afternoon I was in my favourite garden centre (a rather special local one which was – and may still be – a cooperative and attracts staff who are all keen gardeners) and yes, there was Christmas music but lo it was a brass band playing them straight. And it was all rather lovely. Apparently a member of staff has made up eight playlists of seasonal sounds to suit every hour of the working day.
So when it comes to carols I think we can conclude that gardeners know how it should be find. Ceri
Do tell! I’d love to know which garden centre you are talking about. Brass and silver bands are my fave. Dan
Riverside Garden Centre, Bristol? That would be the most one
* Know how it should be done.
Be the one. What is it with autocorrect today?
Ah, now, you’ve given me goose bumps! I love all the old English carols that I grew up hearing and singing in the Episcopal Church of pre-Vatican years. Yes, do please bring on more.