(First published December2020)
What would Christmas be without Christmas carols? There is an astonishing range of these. The exquisite, purely religious ones you will hear, for example, on formal occasions, which so many churches celebrate, like Nine Lessons and Carols. There are the favourites you sing lustily out carol singing as you go round doors in cheery groups Then, there are the more festive ones, you might hear sung in pub gatherings. Perhaps, less welcome, is the constant accompaniment of Christmas music in supermarkets and at other commercially driven networks. (I am tempted to put my hands over my ears every time I hear Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”!)
The range of settings is fitting. Going back to medieval times carols bring together pagan and folk roots with spreading Christian influences. The original meaning of carol is a circular dance. This would be associated in darkest winter with dancing to celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest day on December 21. The time of the Christmas celebration of the Nativity was deliberately chosen to develop from these pagan roots. St. Francis, in 1223, is said to have introduced songs into Nativity plays to accompany Christian mass. In England mystery plays, like the Coventry -plays that cover the Christian year- would include singing of carols appropriate to the theme.
Wassailing was an early form of carousing carol group singing. A wassail is a drink like mulled wine or mead and wassailing involved going round the area at Christmas and New Year singing songs in exchange for food and drink.
Some of my favourite carols come from this medieval period blending folk assimilation of the Christian story and grafting it on to extant folk songs. Every Christmas for many years, our family has listened to Coope, Boyes and Simpson, a group of traditional folk singers who bring to life many of these ancient carols, in a lively traditional folk style. One of the oldest is “”The Boar’s Head Carol” which initially celebrates Christmas eating at Queen’s Hall in Oxford:
The Boar's Head Carol The boar's head in hand bring I, Bedecked with bays and rosemary I pray you, my masters be merry Quot estis in convivio [As you all feast so heartily) Caput apri defero Reddens laudes Domino. [Lo behold the hall I bring Giving praise to God we sing.] The boar's head, as I understand Is the rarest dish in all this land, Which thus bedecked with a gay garland Let us servire cantico. [Let us serve with a song] Caput apri defero Reddens laudes Domino. Our steward hath provided this In honour of the King of Bliss; Which, on this day to be served is In Reginesi atrio. (In the Queen's hall.) Caput apro defero Reddens laudes Domino.
Apart from the Coope, Boyes and Simpson version on CD- “A Garland of Carols” a marvellous rendition of the carol can be found on an album by the great Irish folk band The Chieftains on their album “The Bells of Dublin”. To hear this carol visit You Tube (The Boar’s Head Carol on youtube.com/watch?v=5NiActzCDO subscribed by Sheils Leary)- a version which is superbly illustrated by images of medieval roistering.
(With thanks to Orangemarmalade Books for use of their cover to Aliki’s “Medieval Feast”. The head picture is Sandy’s “Ushering in the Boar’s Head”1852)