Carol, Sweetly Carol,

Some years ago I used to write an occasional little article in our Church Magazine. It was called, not very originally, ‘From the Organ Stool’, as I was the Organist and Choirmaster. One year I did one entitled ‘ Some facts you might not have known about Christmas Carols’. I thought perhaps some of you might be interested:-

  • Originally a Carol was not a religious song, but a secular dance, often in triple time.

  • The carol ‘In Dulci Jubilo’, when the words are sung as a mixture of English (from the German), and Latin, is an example of what is known as a ‘macaronic carol’. The melody can be found in a 14th century manuscript in Leipzig University.

  • The wonderful combination of Charles Wesley and Felix Mendelssohn gave us ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’.

  • The tune of the French carol ‘Whence is that Goodly Fragrance’ later appeared as the rousing drinking song ‘Fill ev’ry glass, for wine inspires us’ in John Gay’s ‘The Beggars Opera’ in the 18th Century. I remember well singing it with the Kirkintilloch Players some 20 years ago!

  • ‘Good King Wenceslas’ originally appeared in Piae Cantiones in 1582, as a Spring carol. It was only about 170 years ago that the 10th Century story of Saint Wenceslas of Bohemia was told. After his father died, he encouraged Christianity in Bohemia, against the wishes of his mother, and was murdered by his brother Buleslav.

  • The Romans used Holly to decorate their houses at the feast of Saturnalia, which occurred in the winter season. Ivy was dedicated by them, to Bacchus from the idea that it warded-off drunken-ness!

  • The Coventry Carol (‘Lul-ly, lul-lay’) is one of the oldest English Carols. The original tune comes from 1591 and was sung in the Coventry Plays of that era.

  • There are several Wassailling Songs. The word Wassail means ‘Keep You Well’.

  • Czechoslovakia has provided a number of lovely quiet carols including the ‘Rocking Carol’, ‘The Birds’, and ‘The Zither Carol’. ‘Infant Holy’ is from Poland.

  • ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ was written in 1857 by Dr J.H.Hopkins of Pennsylvania, one of very few well-known carols from the USA.

So give a thought, when next singing over Christmas, that the words and music may have had a very strange history

Have a very pleasant Advent and Christmas period…..

3 thoughts on “Carol, Sweetly Carol,

  1. Very interesting! Would have been much more apropos had I read this during the appropriate season, but better late than never. Right?!

    PS: John and Charles Wesley were hymn-writing machines! As any good Methodist will tell you. 😉

  2. Hi, DD……I have been neglecting irishpisky, as I seem to be much busier, now that I have retired! You are very right about the Wesleys, as I was brought up in the Irish Methodist tradition, and one of my grandfathers was a Lay Preacher. Although I never heard him preach, I understand he could well speak for an hour on a text!

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