The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs

The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs

by Andrew Gant


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From Oxford professor and renowned British composer, a joyous account of the history behind our favorite carols.

Everyone loves a carol—in the end, even Ebenezer Scrooge. They have the power to summon up a special kind of mid-winter mood, like the aroma of gingerbread or the twinkle of lights on a tree. It’s a kind of magic.

But how did they get that magic? Andrew Gant—choirmaster, church musician, university professor, and writer—tells the story of some twenty carols, each accompanied by lyrics and music, unraveling a captivating, and often surprising, tale of great musicians and thinkers, saints and pagans, shepherd boys and choirboys. Readers get to delve into the history of such favorites as “Good King Wenceslas,” “Away in a Manger,” and “O, Tannenbaum,” discovering along the way how “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” came to replace “Hark, how all the welkin’ ring” and how Ralph Vaughan Williams applied the tune of an English folk song about a dead ox to a poem by a nineteenth century American pilgrim to make “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

A charming book that brims with anecdote, expert knowledge, and Christmas spirit, this is a fittingly joyous account of one of the best-loved musical traditions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718031527
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrew Gant is a composer, choirmaster, organist, university teacher and writer. He has directed The Guards’ Chapel, Worcester College Oxford, and Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal.He lectures in music at St. Peter’s College and St. Edmund Hall in Oxford, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Read an Excerpt

The Carols of Christmas

A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs

By Andrew Gant

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2015 Andrew Gant
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7180-3153-4


"O Come, O Come Emmanuel"

Some of our carols have become associated with celebrations of the birth of Jesus almost by accident. This one is bound into the liturgy and theology of Western Christianity since its earliest incarnations.

Its genesis lies in the "seven 'O's," the great Advent antiphons. These are a series of prayers each invoking Christ by one of the names or titles he is given in Scripture, ending with a supplication framed around that image. They are unimaginably ancient.

Boethius, the Roman author of The Consolation of Philosophy (whose writings about music gave medieval university students much grief) may show some familiarity with their language as far back as the early sixth century. The Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf wrote The Christ in about 750–800. Its first part, "Advent," movingly intersperses the gospel narrative of Mary and Joseph with a series of ref lections that clearly echo the language and imagery of the great 'O's (the edition and translation here are Sir Israel Gollancz's, published in London in 1892):

    Eala pu reccend and pu riht cyning
    Se pe locan healded lif ontyned
    Eadga us siges oprum forwyrned
    Wlitigan wil-sipes, gif his weorc ne deag.

    O thou Ruler, and thou righteous King!
    Thou Keeper of the keys that open life!
    bless us with victory, with a bright career,
    denied unto another, if his work is worthless!

The poem continues:

    Eala earendel engla beorhtast
    Ofer middan-geard monnum sended
    And sodfæsta sunnan leoma,
    Torht ofer tunglas. Pu tida gehwane
    Of sylfum pe symle inlihtes.

    Hail, heavenly beam, brightest of angels thou,
    sent unto men upon this middle-earth!
    Thou are the true refulgence of the sun,
    radiant above the stars, and from thyself
    illuminest for ever all the tides of time.

    O thou God of spirits! how wisely thou
    wast named, with name aright, Emmanuel!
    as the angel spake the word in Hebrew first,
    which in its secret meaning fully now
    is thus interpreted: "The Guardian of the skies,
    God's Self, is now with us."

(In passing, it was this edition that provided J. R. R. Tolkien with much of his imagery and several of his names, including Earendel and Middle Earth.)

Later in the first millennium those great crucibles of liturgical music, the powerhouse Benedictine monasteries of Northern France, employed the Abbot as cantor for the first of the 'O's, with each subsequent antiphon being intoned on successive days by the next most senior member of the establishment in descending order of importance (an interesting inverted pre-echo of the modern habit of having the "Nine Lessons" read in the opposite order of noteworthiness, the first by a nervous eight-year-old chorister trying to pretend he knows what a cicatrice is, then a student, right up to the local worthy).

Theologically, each antiphon links a prophecy of Isaiah through to its fulfillment in the gospel, echoing with the resonances of particular words and ideas through the Bible and beyond. Liturgically, the seven antiphons are sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers on the last seven days of Advent (December 17–23). Remarkably, they survived and prospered into the Anglican and other Protestant traditions, though with some variation of the exact dates on which each is sung.

As with the gospels themselves, early Christian writers discovered (or created) several more to go with the original set. The basic set of seven each begin with the letter O, followed by the name or title being invoked: Sapientia; Adonai; Radix Jesse; Clavis David; Oriens; Rex Gentium; Emmanuel. Somebody noticed that the initial letters of these key words, if read in reverse order, spell the Latin phrase Ero Cras, and claimed that this meant "Tomorrow, I will come," in reference to the meaning of the season of Advent. Ingenious, but unlikely. For one thing, the phrase more accurately means "Tomorrow I will be," which is at best rather vague. For another, this sort of word play is not readily found in liturgical materials. Also, if it's a kind of hidden, coded prophecy building up to something, it spoils the point somewhat to do it backward. More likely, some clever monk in the Middle Ages, an era that thoroughly enjoyed its acrostics, word games, and number patterns, noticed the coincidence one bored day at Vespers and set that particular hare running.

The theological exegesis of the antiphons has occupied the minds of many brainy people. Perhaps we may allow ourselves one tentative toe in these learned waters to get some small idea of where the words and ideas of this carol come from.

The first antiphon begins "O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti ... veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae" ("O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Highest ... come and teach us the way of understanding"). Isaiah says, "The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding." The Wisdom of Solomon has "wisdom reacheth from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things." Joshua was "full of the spirit of wisdom." The child Jesus "grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him." St. Paul asks "that the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him."

The words are pregnant with the promise of fulfillment, like Advent itself. This is the promise the antiphons and their successor, the carol, seek to invoke.

The Advent antiphons are prose, with their own plainsong melody, and are still often sung by accomplished choirs. At some point they were versified into a regular meter and picked up a repeating refrain. The final stage was to marry them to an existing plainsong tune, originally intended for quite different words. A familiar classic emerges from the amalgamation of ancient, disparate elements.

Here is the Latin prose of the fourth antiphon:

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel: qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

(O key of David, and scepter of the House of Israel, who opens, and no man shuts; who shuts, and no man opens: come and lead from the prison house the captive who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.)

And this is the metrical version, with its new refrain:

Veni, clavis Davidica!
Regna reclude caelica,
Fac iter tutum superum
Et claude vias inferum.
Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel
Nascetur pro te, Israel.

The process by which the various versions merge and emerge is, of course, thoroughly hidden in the tenebris and the umbra. Finding a way through, introduces us to the work of unquestionably the two most important among the many Victorian clergymen in this story, John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore.

Neale published the metrical Latin version, beginning "Veni, veni, Emmanuel," in 1851. He believed that it was written in the twelfth century, with the refrain being added at an unknown later date. This is entirely credible on stylistic grounds, though the earliest source known to Neale, and indeed since, is a Tridentine Catholic Psalter from Cologne, dating from 1710. He set another historical puzzle with his choice of tune, harmonized by Helmore. Neale told his readers it was "adapted from a French Missal." The secret of exactly what that meant was to wait another hundred years for its own advent out of darkness.

Translators and hymnologists soon started scurrying all over this hymn, with its stirring evocation of the themes of Advent and its unusual but memorable melody. One of the very first English versions of the original antiphons was written, fittingly, by none other than the Captain of the Catholics himself, John Henry Newman, in 1836. Editors and compilers followed with multiple translations of the hymn, using the same meter as the Latin so their words could be sung to the same tune.

These versions went forth and multiplied so enthusiastically that the strands of their individual verbal DNA have gotten completely muddled up and become totally indistinguishable, like fruit f lies in a bell jar. Writers borrow words and phrases from each other, with and without acknowledgement. Some hymnbooks ascribe their version to Neale, ignoring (or not noticing) the fact that they have altered his very first line from "Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel" to "O come, O come, Emmanuel." Most give multiple attributions — to Neale, and Lacey, or the twelfth century, or Cologne, or anon, or unknown, or some combination of all these — usually adding the dreaded words "and Editors" or "and Compilers." Some think Adonai rhymes with majesty, others with earth and sky. How do you pronounce that word? Who knows? Modern choirs don't. And what is a Dayspring? And is it Emmanuel or Immanuel, which are at least pronounced the same?

It's probably impossible to know now exactly who first wrote what. Verses mysteriously change their order like the French in a bus queue. Some assaults on the Latin, or bits of it, were committed by a person or persons unknown. It is enough, perhaps, for our purposes, to note that important contributions were made by, among many others, Neale, T. A. Lacey, and Henry Sloane Coffin. The version given at the end of this chapter is Neale's, as adapted by Coffin and used in Hymns Ancient and Modern.

One other version merits attention. In the 1850s, Neale and Helmore published their Hymnal Noted. This is No. 65:


The interesting point here is the proper plainsong notation (four-line stave, old-style clef, rhythmless "neumes" instead of crotchets and quavers, no bar lines), with English words. This is exactly what John Marbecke attempted at the Reformation. Respect the integrity of the old musical ways as much as possible, but give the people the words in their own language. The title of their hymnbook may well contain an echo of Marbecke's famous publication The Booke of Common Praier Noted of 1550. As scholars, Neale and Helmore were ahead of their time.

Other editors, of course, forced the tune into the straitjacket of a regular rhythmic pulse. It doesn't work. The tune won't go into 4/4, and arrangers have to keep chopping and changing their choice of time signature. All very confusing.

And what of the tune itself? Where did Neale get it from? The Hymnal Noted places the elusive French Missal, perhaps unexpectedly, in Lisbon. Neale spent the winter of 1853–1854 in Madeira, recuperating from a lung complaint brought on by living in Crawley (a curious coincidence with the medical history of Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould). He may have found his source on that trip. Others claim that it was Bishop Jenner who found the Lisbon book. Whatever the truth, the source text of Helmore's tune could not be found. Some even hinted that Helmore wrote the tune himself.

To get at the truth, we find ourselves in the excellent company of the eminent Cambridge-based plainsong scholar and nun, Mother Thomas More, aka Dr. Mary Berry. In 1966, Dr. Berry was on a research visit to France:

My attention had been drawn to a small fifteenth-century processional in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale. It was Franciscan in origin and probably intended for the use of nuns rather than friars. Turning the pages I discovered, on folio 89v ff, a number of troped verses for the funeral responsory Libera me in the form of a litany, beginning with the words "Bone iesu, dulcis cunctis." The melody of these tropes was none other than the tune of "O come, O come Emmanuel." It appeared in square notation on the left-hand page, and on the opposite page there was a second part that fitted exactly, like a mirror-image, in note-against-note harmony with the hymn-tune. The book would thus have been shared by two sisters, each singing her own part as they processed. So it would seem that this great Advent hymn-tune was not, in the first instance, associated with Advent at all, but with a funeral litany ... Perhaps it is a measure of Helmore's genius that he detected in this melody an appropriate Advent sound as well, one which conveys an unmistakable sense of solemn expectancy, not only for the Nativity of Christ, but also for his Second Coming ... Helmore was shrewd enough, also, to have been aware that an indubitable link exists between the theology of Advent and a procession marking the passage from death to eternal life.

It is just possible that Dr. Berry was looking at the same book wheezily pored over by Neale. More likely, another copy of the same chant made its way across Europe, perhaps within the Franciscan community, and ended up in Lisbon. Either way, we have our tune.

We have, too, probably our most ancient carol. Next time you use it to invoke the great promise of Advent, you are doing so in phrases and cadences that may not have sounded entirely unfamiliar to the earliest Christian musicians of all.


"O Come, O Come Emmanuel"

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan's tyranny; From depths of hell Thy people save, And give them victory o'er the grave.


O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death's dark shadows put to flight!


O come, Thou Key of David, come, And open wide our heavenly home; Make safe the way that leads on high, And close the path to misery.


O come, O come, Thou Lord of Might, Who to Thy tribes on Sinai's height In ancient times didst give the law In cloud, and majesty, and awe.



"O, Christmas Tree"

Because they are part of a folk tradition, some carols can exist in different versions in different places at the same time. "O, Christmas Tree" is better known today in America than in England. It got there with a little help from a family tree with many spreading branches of its own, including a Renaissance composer who lost his family in the Thirty Years' War, German students bellowing Latin songs into their beer, and a nineteenth-century poet and church organist. Among its cousins are an Irish revolutionary honored by Lenin, the state of Maryland, Manchester United football club, and the British Labour Party. Christmas carols have roots and offshoots in all sorts of unlikely places.

To some, "O, Christmas Tree" may not count as a carol at all. The words are a translation of a German poem beginning "O Tannenbaum," but a Tannenbaum isn't specifically a Christmas tree, it's just a fir tree. Apart from this bit of creative mistranslation, the poem makes no reference to Christmas at all, and certainly not to anything remotely connected with the Christian story. The tree is used as an image of reliability and changelessness in a fleeting world. Also, the poem's status as a translation shows perhaps more clearly than any other Christmas song how an oral, rather than a composed, tradition never settles into a final form. Nobody knows what the "correct" version is, because there isn't one.

The Internet provides the perfect vehicle for revealing how this kind of dissemination by Chinese whispers works. Do a web search for the words of this song and you'll find, among much else, people looking for "the words I knew in childhood," finding something a bit like what they remember but not quite, and asking if anyone out there knows the rest of the ones that go something like

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How lovely are thy branches
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How dum de dum dum dum dum
La la la laaaa, in summertime
La la la laaaa, in wintertime.
O Christmas tree, etc.

Replies are many and various, but none quite matches the questioner's memory. The past is a foreign country — they do things differently there. Recorded versions have all sorts of different sets of lyrics. Versions by artists as potent as Aretha Franklin and Alvin and the Chipmunks are alike in their basic theme and their key features, but quite dissimilar in detail.

Does it matter? Not a bit. This is what an oral tradition is.

The tune, on the other hand, first appeared in print in 1824, with the name of a perfectly sensible composer attached. It, surely, must be safe from being mangled by the funny tricks of time, at least as far as important details like the number of beats in a bar are concerned? Well, no. Never mind whether the pairs of quavers are dotted or not, beneath the swooping strings and mooing horns under which this poor, innocent little melody is so often buried, you can find versions with four beats to the bar instead of three.

Should we be surprised? Should we be bothered? Not really. When something like a tune is passed on by memory and by performance, it will both change and stay the same. The same is true of language. That's how it evolves. "Happy Birthday to You" started out in 4/4 time, and now it's in 3/4.


Excerpted from The Carols of Christmas by Andrew Gant. Copyright © 2015 Andrew Gant. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction, ix,
1 O Come, O Come Emmanuel, 2,
Feasting and Making Ready,
2 O, Christmas Tree, 12,
3 The Holly and the Ivy, 19,
The Journey to Bethlehem,
4 I Saw Three Ships, 28,
December 24: Christmas Eve,
5 O Little Town of Bethlehem, 38,
December 25: Christmas Day,
6 Good Christian Men, Rejoice, 48,
7 O Come, All Ye Faithful: Adeste, fideles, 56,
"And There Were Shepherds, Abiding in the Fields",
8 While Shepherds Watched, 68,
9 O Holy Night, 76,
"Lo, the Angel of the Lord Came Upon Them",
10 Ding dong! Merrily on High, 90,
11 Angels from the Realms of Glory, 96,
"Suddenly, There Was With the Angela Multitude of the Heavenly Host, Praising God",
12 Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, 106,
"They Saw Mary And Joseph, and the Babe, Lying in a Manger",
13 Away in a Manger, 120,
14 I Wonder As I Wander, 127,
December 26: St. Stephen's Day,
15 Good King Wenceslas, 136,
December 28: Holy Innocents,
16 Personent Hodie, 144,
January 1,
17 Here We Come a-Wassailing, 154,
January 5: Twelfth Night,
18 The Twelve Days of Christmas, 166,
January 6: Epiphany,
19 We Three Kings, 176,
20 What Child Is This?, 181,
21 Jingle Bells, 188,
Epilogue, 197,
Notes, 201,
Bibliography, 205,
List of Illustrations, 207,
Index, 209,
About the Author, 217,

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The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
JuneMJ More than 1 year ago
This book was more technical than I expected when I requested it, but it was enjoyable and I learned a lot about my favorite Christmas carols. The author is extremely knowledgeable about his subject, and he has done a lot of deep research into the history of the twenty-one carols of Christmas explored here. This book includes reproductions of archival material relating to many of the carols (i.e., the original charts, publications, and handwritten notes by the composers). At the end of each chapter a music chart for the carol is provided for those of us who like to ‘sing’ or play this beautiful holiday music. Each chapter revealed a surprising tidbit about the particular carol being featured. For instance, ‘O Holy Night’, my favorite carol, became the first piece of music to be broadcast live on the radio when it was played in 1906. The author states that this carol was meant for a soloist rather than a choir or congregation. ‘Away in a Manger’ was written in the 15th century in German by reformer Martin Luther as a hymn for his own children. It was first published in 1884, so the author labeled this song as a ‘youngster’ compared to the majority of the carols featured in this book. Mr. Gant shares that in a 1996 poll in the United Kingdom, ‘Away in a Manger’ was chosen as the second most popular carol. {Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the name of the most popular carol in this book!} We learn that ‘Jingle Bells’ was originally published in 1857 by James Lord Pierpoint under the title, ‘The One Horse Open Sleigh’. It was enjoyed for its ‘catchy good humor’. Once the title changed to ‘Jingle Bells, or The One Horse Open Sleigh’ in its second edition dated 1859, the song’s popularity spread. Mr. Gant made an interesting point—this song doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas! I highly recommend this book to fans of Christmas carols, music theory, music, and history. ________________________________________ NOTE FROM REVIEWER: I was given a hardcover copy of this book for free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers review program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own. I was not compensated in any manner for posting my review here or on any other site.
GCWineholt More than 1 year ago
THE CAROLS OF CHRISTMAS A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs By Andrew Gant Every wonder able the true story behind some of the Christmas carols and where they came from. Andrew Gant offers a history of carols and a background on 21favorite carols that are familiar to all. He uses his musical background to help us understand the stories and histories of the music used with the carols I enjoyed the collection of 21 carols that he chose to write about. Including favorites as Jingle Bells and The Twelve Days of Christmas with many of the traditional church carols. The stories are interesting and how the final version of the carol came about will give a new meaning to the carols. Andrew offers a copy of the sheet music and verses to each carols to share as we learn more able the carols. A book packed with information and useful tool to understanding the origin of a part of our history of a holiday celebrated by millions each year. A great book for sharing with family and friends. I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255
Jules-OneBookShy More than 1 year ago
Anyone who grew up singing and listening to the classic Christmas carols will enjoy reading of their origins and their paths to becoming the songs we now know. Many of them have roots in Pagan culture as well as beginnings that have absolutely nothing to do with celebrating Christ and Christmas. This is a very well-researched book, filled to the brim with lovely details and facts. I did find myself bogged down in a couple of spots just because of the sheer amount of information presented. It was very interesting but at times a bit of a job to get back on track. I always did though. I was very pleased that the author included the (sheet) music and lyrics. I found myself singing along to many of the carols as I was reading. I'm looking forward to getting to the piano and seeing if I can remember how to play - just in time for Christmas. Originally posted at One Book Shy of a Full Shelf *I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.
PJtheEMT4 More than 1 year ago
The Carols of Christmas- A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs by Andrew Gant is published just in time to usher in the 2015 holiday season. This quaint hardcover book features the historical back grand, as well as selected black and white reproductions of vintage holiday art as well as lyrics and music for twenty well know songs. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular song, including Jingle Bells, O Holy Night and the Twelve days of Christmas. In addition to the musical lyrics and vintage illustrations, an extensive historical background on the song's origins is provided for each song. This book makes the perfect stocking stuffer for history enthusiasts, choir members as well as anyone who enjoys folklore and Christmas stories. It shouldn't come as any surprise that these stories are of varied origins, cultures and even faiths. While it is published by a Christian book publisher, much of the material is secular and not specific to religion. Nevertheless the references to Epihany, Holy Innocents and St Steven are most familiar with Roman Catholics and Lutherans. This gives the book a quaint authentic touch that will make many readers feel nostalgic around Christmas time as Christmas day is for some, the only day they attend Church or Mass. I can imagine this book would make the perfect resource for a grade school book report on the Holidays or Christmas Carols. It would also make a perfect gift for a music teacher or choir member. This book is certain to give the reader a more enlightened background on music they have heard at Christmastime since childhood. Age old carols will take on a new light after reading this book. As a blogger for Booklook I received a copy of this book published by Nelson Books and imprint of Thomas Nelson publishers.