River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Countryside Notes - Christmas Carols 2016

January 2017

Christmas has long been a time for singing and every now and then a Christmassy song tops the charts. Surprisingly some of those we’re familiar with were written quite a long time ago. ‘Jingle Bells’ dates back to 1857 and ‘O little Town of Bethlehem’ to 1868. Bing Crosby’s famous ‘White Christmas’ was recorded in 1942 at about the same time as ‘Little Drummer Boy’ based on an old Czech carol. Even ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ have been around for more than sixty years. ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ was written in 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Religious Christmas songs are better known as carols. The word ‘carol’ is a medieval word of French and Anglo-Norman origin believed to mean a dance song or a circle dance accompanied by singing. Although it’s not known when the first one was written the period 1350-1550 was considered to be the golden age for English carols. ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ first appeared as a secular dance in the 16th century although was not published until 1924. After then the popularity of carols waned but was revived again in the mid18th century when most of the traditional carols sung today were written. ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ was first heard in 1739 with ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ following soon after in 1751. ‘Silent Night’, originally written in German, was first performed in Austria on Christmas Day 1818. Of Cornish Origin ‘The First Noel’, appeared in 1823 and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In’ were published in 1833 although date back to the 17th century. Two Frenchman composed ‘O Holy Night’, first sang in 1847, and only later translated into English. Ten years afterwards Rev John Hopkins wrote ‘We Three Kings’. Interestingly the African-American spiritual ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ dates back to 1865. One of the strangest carols is apparently about the countryside with no religious significance. However it encompassed a hidden meaning known only to members of the Roman Catholic Church in England who from 1558 until 1829 were not permitted to openly practice their faith. Each element in the carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ contains a code word for a religious reality. A partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ. Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments. Three French hens stood for Faith, Hope and Charity. Four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Five golden rings recalled the first five books of the Old Testament. Six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation. Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. Eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit – Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self Control. Ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments. Eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples. Twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed. Happy Christmas everyone

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