Songs of fes­tive joy

For­get the tin­sel and the flashy dis­plays of con­sumerism – it’s carol singers who cap­ture the true essence of Christ­mas. Bill Laws con­sid­ers their back­story

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - FOCUS ON -

The 1840s was a fruit­ful decade in terms of the fes­tive sea­son. For ex­am­ple, 1843 saw the pub­li­ca­tion of Charles Dick­ens’s A Christ­mas Carol and the ar­rival of the first Christ­mas card. Then there were the scenes of fes­tive bliss in Queen Vic­to­ria’s house­hold, graced with its Christ­mas tree and re­vealed to the gen­eral pub­lic in fam­ily mag­a­zines such as the Il­lus­trated Lon­don

News and Cas­sell’s. All that was needed to com­plete the pic­ture were carol singers. In 1822, a Cor­nish cu­rate’s son, Davies Gil­bert, had pub­lished an early col­lec­tion of carols in­clud­ing The First Noel based on an old Cor­nish carol. “The Editor,” Gil­bert ex­plained, “is anx­ious to pre­serve them [carols] on ac­count of the de­light they af­forded him in his child­hood.”

Gil­bert’s work would be fol­lowed by an­ti­quar­ian Wil­liam Sandys’ own Christ­mas Carols An­cient and

Mod­ern in 1833, which in­spired sev­eral hymn writ­ers to pub­lish their own ver­sions of old carols.

The Vic­to­rian carol singers, armed with their carol hym­nals, could now take to the streets on St Thomas’ night (De­cem­ber 21, usu­ally the short­est day of the year), and sing their way through the snowy evenings to Christ­mas.

Carol singing dates back at least 700 years to the days when a ‘carol’ – re­ally any song with a rous­ing cho­rus – was nei­ther specif­i­cally about Christ­mas, nor nec­es­sar­ily Chris­tian. “The carol singer,” wrote Ce­cil Sharp, the au­thor of English Folk

A group of carol singers on a win­try night at Christ­mas time, circa 1890

Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are?

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