A Victorian Christmas - Liner Notes

From early Christian times, the carol grew out of the need felt by common people to express simple ideas and honest emotions that were not addressed by the somber music of the church. Carols tended to be joyful and direct. As often as not they told stories, some Christian, some pre-Christian, some entirely non-religious, some all muddled together with exotic folkloric results. The universal accessibility of popular carols has helped insure their survival through centuries of historical turmoil, broad swings of fashion and even religious prohibition.

Carols originally were association with dancing. The very word 'carol,' traceable to ancient Greek drama, once meant to dance in a ring. But since the frivolity of dance was frowned upon by the medieval church as carols developed, the old connection faded, though not completely. Today plenty of carols retain verses or titles that celebrate dancing as part of an appropriate manifestation of Christianity. One example, My Dancing Day, is included here.

By the 14th century, carol singing was firmly established throughout Europe. In England the carol's popularity mirrored that of the narrative ballad. No amount of clerical complaining seemed able to stop the people from adding new carols and variants to the ever-increasing body of song. And since the tradition developed independent of the church at first, carol melodies grew out of popular folk song rather than ecclesiastic chant. Just as many sets of words could be attached to a single melody, lyrics could be paired with quite different regional tunes. The singable folk melodies and cyclic verse-chorus form remain to this day.

It should be noted here that carol singing was not originally limited to Christmas. New Year, Easter and saints' days at planting and harvesting times were among the holidays that generated their own carols. Some carols were generalized and could be sung year-round. Only in the resurgence of interest in the late 19th century did carol-singing become almost exclusively associated with Christmas. The practice of carolers singing from door to door comes from the old 'waits' tradition. The waits was originally a medieval town crier or timekeeper who sometimes played on a shawm or pipe, and in some places, bands of waits musicians sang and played in the streets. The practice is delightfully described in the lyrics of The Wassail Song.

The history of carol-singing in England has seen some dark times. After an explosion of popularity in the 16th century, when the first versions of many of today's carols were written, carols were among the cultural victims of the Puritans. Rising to power in the war to topple King Charles I, the Puritan Parliament of 1647 officially abolished Christmas and other festivals altogether. Even though Christmas was again observed in England after Cromwell's demise, carols continued an underground existence for generations. Almost no new carols were published in England during the following 150 years.

The revival of widespread popular interest in British carols is truly a Victorian phenomenon. When Victoria was born in 1819, carols were only being sung in a few isolated communities. Beginning in 1822, however, as collections of the old songs were published (see bibliography below), the caroling tradition that had nearly died out was revitalized. The clergy all over England enthusiastically taught them to their parishioners. Victorian popular taste and Victorian Protestant religious observance in the United States and England were closely linked, so these carols steadily gained in popularity here, as well.

Since being published and widely learned in particular settings, melodies to Victorian carols have become popular and recognizable even performed without lyrics. The melodies have taken on lives and meanings of their own in our more secular modern society. Still, even without the words, these lively, simple melodies convey a sense of tradition and joy that seems in keeping with all that is best about Christmas.

The History of the Hammered Dulcimer

The hammered dulcimer was popularly known as the piano harp in Victorian times. A musical cousin to both piano and harpsichord and direct descendent of their common ancestor, the Persian santur, the dulcimer was played as a parlor instrument all over northern Europe. All sizes and shapes of dulcimers were introduced by early European immigrants to North America from earliest colonial days.

The type of dulcimer most favored today in both North America and British Isles more closely resembles the early santur than its chromatic European relatives. The most important development from santur to dulcimer was the shifting of the main bridge to the right to the notes produced on either side of the bridge were offset by a fifth rather than by an octave. As a result, a majority of traditional music played in Britain and North America fits comfortably on the modern dulcimer.

The popularity of the old-style piano harp faded early in this century as our entertainment focus moved from the parlor and music hall to the cinema and radio. The modern hammered dulcimer was largely rediscovered during the last generation as part of the continuing folk music revival on both sides of the Atlantic. The instrument Robin plays on A Victorian Christmas was built by Texas craftsman Russell Cook.

About the Carols

Several of the carol versions included in A Victorian Christmas come from singers who could trace the carols' origins to specific areas of 19th century England or Ireland. The rest were collected in one or more of the listed source books. Most were popular in many parts of Victorian Britain and are still sung today.

Jacob's Ladder - A carol popularized in 1871 through John Stainer's widely used Christmas Carols New and Old.
My Dancing Day - Collected by Sandys in 1833, this probably dates to before the 17th century.

The Wassail Song - Many variant verses have been sung to this melody, which seems likely to date from Shakespeare's time. Another carol popularized by Stainer, this version came from Yorkshire.
The First Nowell - Still a favorite, this lovely carol was at least 200 years old when Victoria came to the throne.

Christmas Eve - From Sandys' 1833 collection.

The Cherry Tree Carol - One of the most popular Victorian carols, this was sung to several melodies all over Britain. Both melodies included here were collected in the 1860s.

Righteous Joseph - A Cornish Nativity carol known to be sung as early as 1840.
The Sans Day Carol - Another Nativity carol, from Gwennap, Cornwall. The title refers to St. Day (or St. They), a Breton saint who attracted an early cult following in Cornwall. The lyrics echo the same strong pagan imagery found in The Holly and the Ivy.

The Holly and the Ivy - Universally popular, this version was noted in Gloucestershire by Cecil Sharp. Coupled with lyrics of unquestioned pagan origins, it may date back 1,000 years.
All in the Morning - Vaughan Williams collected this melody from and singer in Derbyshire.

The Sussex Mummers' Carol - Collected near Horsham, Sussex in the late 1870s.
The Carnal and the Crane - This setting was learned from a singer in Dilwyn, near the Welsh border, and versions appear in several listed collections. 'Carnal' may be an Anglicized corneille, French for crow.

The Wexford Carol - Learned from a traditional singer in County Wexford, Ireland.
The Sussex Carol - Traced to the mid-19th century streets of Dublin and included in an early issue of the Journal of the Folk Song Society.

The Praise of Christmas - collected in the mid-1800s by E.F. Rimbault, the lyrics are at least 100 years older.
Greensleeves - A melody of unknown antiquity, paired with celebratory New Years lyrics over 350 years ago and sung as a waits carol. The earliest print carol version dates from the 1642 New Christmas Carols volume in the Bodleian Library. This was only five years before the Puritan Parliament temporarily abolished Christmas and all other holiday celebrations.

The Somerset Carol - Taught to Cecil Sharp around 1910 in Bridgewater, Somerset. This version had been sung in the West Country for many years.
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen - Called 'the most popular of Christmas carols' by A.H. Bullen. Played here first in its best-known modern form, from an early 19th century London broadside, followed by a more popular Victorian melody, from Sandys' collection.

Lamb of God - More often sung as a Passiontide and Easter carol, a version was included in A Good Christmas Box in 1847.

The Furry Day Carol - Originally a May carol, perhaps Cornish, possibly from Chaucer's time, this more recently acquired a Christmas variant. The odd word 'furry' comes from the Latin feria, meaning 'holiday,' though in Middle English it came to mean 'village fair' rather than 'holy day.'

All the carols in A Victorian Christmas can be found in The Oxford Book of Carols, compiled by P. Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams and M. Shaw, first published in 1928 and the primary historical source used for this project. Known Victorian sources of the listed carols include:

Anonymous. A Good Christmas Box. 1847.
Bullen, A.H. Carols and Poems. 1885.
Husk, W.H. Songs of the Nativity. 1868.
Rimbault, E.F. Little Book of Carols. 1846 (further collections 1863, 1865).
Sandys, William. Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. 1833.
Sharp, Cecil. Folk Songs from Somerset, English Folk-Carols.
Stainer, Dr. John, and H.R. Bramley. Christmas Carols New and Old. 1871.
Williams, R. Vaughan. Eight Traditional English Carols, Twelve Traditional Carols from Herefordshire.

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