It’s that time of year again, when Christmas will soon be upon us. As such, the Library ‘blog choir’ couldn’t pass on the chance to sing some Christmas music. For this we took our inspiration from Some ancient Christmas carols with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England, collected by Davies Gilbert. Gilbert was a Cornishman, born at St Erth in 1767, and the publication of the book of carols in 1822 set the agenda for the rediscovery of the oral tradition, which he saw was in danger of disappearing.
“The following Carols or Christmas Songs were chanted to the Tunes accompanying, in Churches on Christmas Day, and in private houses on Christmas Eve, throughout the West of England, up to the latter part of the late [18th] century”.
They are “specimens of times now passed away, and religious feelings superseded by others of a different cast”.
For Gilbert, the carols brought back fond memories of childhood, “when the festivities of Christmas Eve were anticipated by many days of preparation”. Yet they were also inked in his mind with pre-Reformed customs: he noted that shadows of the Christmas Eve Catholic Mass, when austerities ceased at midnight and rejoicing began were, till very lately, preserved in the Protestant West of England.
The day of Christmas Eve was passed in an ordinary manner; but at seven or eight o’clock in the evening cakes were drawn hot from the oven; cyder or beer exhilarated the spirits in every house; and the singing of Carols was continued late into the night. On Christmas Day these Carols took the place of Psalms in all the Churches, especially afternoon service, the whole Congregation joining; and at the end it was usual for the Paris Clerk to declare, in a loud voice, his wished for a merry Christmas and a happy new year to all the Parishioners.
Our book is the second edition of these carols, a result of the first “having attracted much more of public attention then the Editor could have flattered himself with their being likely to obtain”, and includes several other carols not found in the first edition. There are 20 carols in total, as well as some ancient ballads, and from this Jane selected four for us to sing: carols 2 (When God at first created man), 3 (A Virgin most pure), 5 (Hark! hark! what news the Angels bring), and 8 (Let all that are to mirth inclin’d). With some of these having up to 16 verses, listeners will be pleased to know that we didn’t sing every verse! Instead, Jane cleverly chose verses from each, so that through the four carols we tell the Christmas story, from the Angel’s announcement to Mary that she is to bear the Son of God, to the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the three Wise Men with their gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold.
We hope that our readers (and listeners) enjoy this offering of carols (which is very much in the rough and ready oral tradition!), and we take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
You can watch another clip of the library choir’s carol performance on the library’s facebook page: