Carol singers

By Wendy Hughes

What a difference a year makes, and this year I am really looking forward to joining in the festive season.  Last year my mobility was not good, and I couldn’t do any present or food shopping for myself, having to rely on hubby. The big day arrived and I spent Christmas Day on the settee asleep only to be woken up when dinner was about to served.

This week I managed to go shopping until I dropped and choose my own gifts and wrapping paper.  I have also already done about three quarters of my food shopping. So before we returned home we sat on a bench in Worthing and listened to some carol singers, which got me thinking about the history of carols first sung in Europe thousands of years ago. However these were not Christmas Carols as we know them today, but pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as the people danced round stone circles. The Winter Solstice usually takes place around the shortest day of the year, 21st December. The word Carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy, and carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived.

Carols in town centre

Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs.  In the year 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church, and soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write ‘Christmas carols’. However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn’t understand.

By the Middles Ages (1200s), most people lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether, but this changed when St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223, started his Nativity plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were in a language that ordinary people could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.

I Saw Three Ships

The earliest carol, like this, was written in 1410. Sadly only a very small fragment of it still exists which told the story of Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches!  Travelling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were travelling. One such carol that changed was the famous ‘I Saw Three Ships.

When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret. Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England.

Before carol singing in public became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called ‘Waits’. These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders) who had the only power in the towns and villages to take money from the public (if others did this, they were sometimes charged as beggars!). They were called ‘Waits’ because they only sang on Christmas Eve (This was sometimes known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ because of the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.), when the Christmas celebrations began.

Good King Wenceslas

Also, at this time, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, so carols once again became popular. Many new carols, such as ‘Good King Wenceslas’ were also written in the Victorian period.  The carol ‘I Saw Three Ships is a traditional English folk song and the words of this carol, of which there are several versions) were written by wandering minstrels as they travelled through the country. In the original version of the carol, the Three Ships were the ones taking the supposed skulls of the wise men to Cologne cathedral in Germany. However, since the Middle Ages, when it was first written, there have been many different lyrics with different Bible characters being on the ships. The most common lyrics used today are about Mary and Jesus travelling to Bethlehem. The carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’  has an unusual and confusing story behind it, and was written in Victorian Britain by John Mason Neale to a traditional folk tune, and was written in the town of East Grinstead, in the county of West Sussex, at Sackville College where he was staying at the time. The story is about the King (or Duke) of Bohemia from over 1000 years ago, who seeing peasants on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) from his castle took food and wood to them. The story in the carol was probably completely made up as the real story of King Wenceslas (907-935) is rather gory!

Good King Wenceslas

Wenceslas’ father was the Duke of Bohemia and a Christian but it’s thought that his mother might have been a pagan. His father died when he was 12 and, as he was not old enough to become Duke until he was 18, his mother took control of the land as regent. During this time his grandmother, Ludmilla, took care of Wenceslas and brought him up as a Christian (she smuggled priests into the house to help teach him). It’s thought that His mother had Ludmilla banished to a distant castle where she was murdered by her guards!

Wenceslas was still a Christian after this and learned to read and write something that was unusual for even a King in those days! He had local Bishops smuggled in at night to teach him the Bible, and when he reached the age of 18, Wenceslas took control of his dukedom, and  defended Bohemia from a couple of invasions by Dukes of the neighbouring  regions.  Tradition informs us that he banished his mother and her pagan followers from his castle.

After four years of happiness, when Wenceslas was 22, his brother Boleslav, became very jealous of Wenceslas and plotted to kill Wenceslas. Boleslav invited Wenceslas to celebrate a saint’s day with him, but on the way to the Church, Wenceslas was attacked and stabbed to death by three of Boleslav’s followers!

The (fictitious) story told in the carol was written by a Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda in 1847 who wrote many manuscripts that tried to prove that Czech literature was much older and more developed than it really was. The poem was written in three languages, Czech, German, and Latin, and was called ‘Sankt Wenceslaw und Podiwin’ (Saint Wenceslas and the Crocheteer). The Poem found its way into the UK in the 19th Century where JM Neale set the translated words to the tune of a 13th century spring carol ‘Tempus Adest Floridum’ (‘It is time for flowering’) that came from a collection of old religious songs called ‘Piae Cantiones’ that was published in 1582 in Sweden/Finland!

Silent Night

The words of Silent Night were written by a Priest called Fr. Joseph Mohr in Mariapfarr, Austria, in 1816 and the music added in 1818, by his school teacher friend Franz Xaver Gruber, for the Christmas service at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. Fr. Mohr asked Franz Gruber to compose the melody with a guitar arrangement, and several years later Franz Gruber wrote an arrangement for the organ. Historians who have conducted research in recent years believe that Fr. Mohr wanted a new carol that he could play on his guitar.

Like all carols there is a legend associated with the carol that tells us that, Fr. Mohr wanted the carol to be sung by the children of the village at the midnight Christmas Eve service, as a surprise for their parents. But in the middle of practising, the organ broke and not a note would come from it, so the children had to learn the carol accompanied by a guitar, and they learnt the carol so well that they could sing it on its own without accompaniment. However, there are no records to prove that a children’s choir was involved or that the organ was broken.

World War I truce

At Midnight Mass in 1818, Fr. Mohr and Franz Gruber sang each of the six verses with the church choir repeating the last two lines of each verse. Mohr set down the guitar arrangement on paper around 1820 and the earliest manuscript still exists. It is displayed in the Carolino Augusteum Museum in Salzburg, where a number of manuscripts of various ‘Stille Nacht’ arrangement that were written by Franz Gruber in later years. The original words of the song were in German and translated into English in 1863 by John Freeman Young. The carol was sung during the Christmas Truce in the First World War in December 191, as the carol was known by soldiers on both sides and is  now one of the most, if not the most, recorded carol in the world!