A Garland of Christmas Carols

With Christmas quickly approaching, it seems an appropriate time to review a book about the history of Christmas carols. Though this book was published forty years after the Regency came to an end, the gentlemen who prepared it were born either before or during the Regency. Just as important, the majority of the carols which can be found within the pages of this book significantly pre-date our favorite decade. Regency authors who plan to set a romance during the Christmas season will find this volume a valuable reference, particularly if they plan to have any of their characters celebrate by singing carols which were actually known during those years. Even better, a digital copy of this useful reference can be acquired at no cost.

A Garland of Christmas Carols . . .

The full title of this charming book is A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, Including Some Never Before Given in Any Collection. The editor’s name is given as Joshua Sylvester. However, scholars of the origins of Christmas carols have determined that that name was a pseudonym for a pair of scholarly English gentlemen, William Sandys and William Henry Husk. Both were students of music history who collected Christmas carols and collaborated on this compendium of the history of carols as well as including many of the carols in their personal collections. In some of the bibliographic citations of this book, John Camden Hotten is listed as the editor, but in actual fact, he was the original publisher.

William Sandys was born in 1792, and William Husk was born in 1814. Both had been collecting all kinds of music for most of their lives and both had a particular interest in Christmas carols. Though this book was first published in 1861, a number of the Christmas carols it contains date back to the Middle Ages, while others were a bit more recent, dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But nearly all of them would have been known and sung during the years of the Regency. However, not all of the carols would have been sung in all areas of Britain at that time. Initially, some of the carols in this book were only known in certain regions of the country. It was not until the later nineteenth century that they became more widely known, typically when they were published in books like this one.

In quite a few cases, the lyrics and/or the music for these old Christmas carols had been published by way of broadsides, essentially early posters. These large sheets were seasonal ephemera which did not always survive much beyond the season for which they were printed. Nevertheless, enough of them where stored away that, in time, a significant number of those broadside carols found their way into the collections of Sandys and Husk. In this book, the notes that accompany the carols indicate if the source of a particular carol was a broadside, as well as noting the region where the broadside was printed, thus suggesting where in Britain that carol was once most popular.

Following the Introduction, the book is divided into six categories of carols, Legendary and Narrative Carols; Religious Carols; Numeral Carols; Carols in Praise of Holly and Ivy; Carols in Praise of the Boar’s Head and Festive Carols. The Introduction opens with an anecdotal description of an English village during the Christmas season. It then goes on to provide a brief overview of the history of Christmas music and its sources. It was interesting to learn that some of the earliest Christmas carols were actually songs which were sung as part of the religious mystery and miracle plays which were widely popular with the public during the Middle Ages. Some of the more prominent scholars and collectors of Christmas carols are listed and thanked for their pioneering efforts in the field. Certainly, the gentlemen who compiled this collection of Christmas carols were not oblivious to the fact that the quality of the writing in a number of them was rather uneven. The Introduction noted:

The Editor is aware that many of the carols represent the most indifferent poetry. He was prevailed upon to include them in the collection for various reasons, — their earnest simplicity, the old religious stories they frequently contained, together with a considerable respect for that general favor which for many generations has been accorded to them by all classes.

Thus, readers were assured that no carols were excluded on the basis of their qualifications as fine literature. Yet, not surprisingly, as this book was published during the Victorian period, readers were advised that " . . . it was endeavoured not to include anything contrary to morality or good taste."

The remainder of A Garland of Christmas Carols is comprised of the six sections which represent the categories into which the "Editor" has sorted the collection. The lyrics for each carol are provided and each is preceded by a paragraph or two on the specific history of that carol. The first two sections include the bulk of the carols in the book. Several of the carols in the Legendary and Narrative Carols section are the traditional carols many of us know and love. One of my particular favorites, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, is included in this section. The Religious Carols section includes a number of carols which had originally been written by English poets in the seventeenth century. Needless to say, the poetry of those carols is quite good. However, the carol, The Virgin Mother, is introduced in this way:   "The popularity of the following Carol is the only excuse for its insertion here. The poetry is of the most poverty-stricken description, — and yet there is a quaint earnestness that now and then arrests the reader’s attention." Two very popular traditional carols which are still sung today, Joy to the World, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, are both included in this section.

The last four sections of the book include more specialized carols. The Numeral Carols includes only three carols, which it was explained were generally intended for children. By singing these songs, they would be able to learn the list of things that made up the lyrics of the songs. The section Carols in Praise of Holly and Ivy included five carols, all of which in some way celebrated the custom of decorating homes and churches with evergreens during the Christmas season. The next section, Carols in Praise of the Boar’s Head, also included five carols, each of which was equally specialized. It seems that an ancient Christmas custom in the baronial halls of Old England was for the host to serve a fine meal which began when a roasted and dressed boar’s head was carried into the dining hall. These carols celebrate that ancient custom. The last section, Festive Carols, is significantly larger and included more than a dozen carols which apparently did not fall into any of the other categories. One which I find particularly amusing is A Carol in Praise of Ale. Another carol which is certainly festive is A Carol for a Wassail-Bowl. Also to be found in this section is Come Bring The Noise, written by the poet Robert Herrick about the traditional custom of bringing in the Yule Log.

There were later editions of this book, published in both 1901 and 1905. However, both of those editions contained only the Introduction and the first two carol categories from the original 1861 edition. The last four sections were completely omitted. Original hard copies of the 1861 edition of A Garland of Christmas Carols are relatively rare and are therefore quite expensive. Fortunately for those who cannot afford such copies, the book has been digitized and is now available online. In my opinion, the best digital copy can be found at the Internet Archive, on this page. This version was digitized by the staff of the Internet Archive, so each page is very clear and legible. In addition, the book can be downloaded at no cost, in a variety of formats. The 1861 edition of A Garland of Christmas Carols is also available at Google Books, on this page. Unfortunately, like many books which have been digitized by Google, there are a number of pages which are distorted and/or are barely legible. This version is also available for free download, but in fewer formats. Both versions are fully searchable, which can save a lot of time when seeking a particular carol or set of lyrics.

Dear Regency Authors, if you are seeking the lyrics for a traditional Christmas carol or two to include in a Christmastime romance set in our favorite period, you might find just what you need in A Garland of Christmas Carols. And fortunately, you can add this book to your research library at no cost if you want to download a copy from the Internet Archive or Google Books. Even if you do not have an immediate need for a Christmas carol, you may well enjoy reading this charming, if rather antiquated history of one of our favorite holiday pleasures.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.