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.