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Christmas Carols in the Early 19th Century

Due to our video-centered culture today, almost any adult, and many children, are familiar with the scene from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where, as Scrouge walks through the streets of London he meets a group of people caroling for donations. While this may be quite correct for England in the 1840s, the early Victorian era, when Dickens authored the story, just how correct is it for earlier times in England and for America. Were people singing Christmas carols and, if so, what carols were they singing? Join us for this year’s Christmas blog post as we examine these questions.

Some Past History on Christmas Carols and Caroling

In the mid-17th century, Christmas in England was banned by the Cromwellian Puritans who had deposed the monarchy. This has given rise in many quarters to the belief that Christmas fun and frivolity was revived until the Victorian period. It is true that, under the Puritans, Christmas was completely abolished, and shops and markets were kept open during the 25th of December. These dour Puritans disliked Christmas because of its heathen origins and because of its association with extravagance and excess. People were expected to continue going about their normal business and not partake in holiday celebrations or face fines and imprisonment. However, with the restoration of the monarchy the Puritans lost power and by the Georgian period, Christmas was again fully celebrated.

The celebration of Christmas was outlawed in most of New England. Calvinist Puritans and Protestants abhorred the entire celebration and likened it to pagan rituals and Popish observances. In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts forbade, under the fine of five shillings per offense, the observance "of any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labour, feasting, or any such way." The Assembly of Connecticut, in the same period, prohibited the reading of the Book of Common Prayer, the keeping of Christmas and saints' days, the making of mince pies, the playing of cards, or performing on any musical instruments. These statutes remained in force until they were repealed early in the nineteenth century. In 1749, Peter Kalm noted that the Quakers completely dismissed the celebration of Christmas in Philadelphia. Since Christmas was not observed in New England and most of the middle colonies/states until the mid-nineteenth century, we will look to Virginia for an idea as to how the holiday was observed and if caroling took place.

Christmas and Carols in Virginia

Even within Virginia, how Christmas was celebrated, and thus the likelihood of caroling was highly dependent on where you were and what the predominant religious affiliations in the area were. While the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians mostly observed Christmas as a religious occasion, if at all. Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians celebrated the traditional Christmas season with both religious and secular observances. In those communities the Christmas season in Virginia was filled with festive entertainment, which included singing and dancing to the accompaniment of musicians. Traditional carols and contemporary hymns were sung in the company of friends and family. On Christmas Eve in 1775, Philip Fithian wrote in his diary from Staunton, Virginia:

The Evening I spent at Mr. Guys--I sung for an Hour, at the good Peoples Desire, Mr. Watts admirable Hymns--I myself was entertaind; I felt myself improvd; so much Love to Jesus is set forth--So much divine Exercise.

During the Christmas season Virginians enjoyed singing popular English carols. During the eighteenth century however, carols were not sung in the liturgy of the Anglican Church. The congregation joined with the parish clerk and priest in the metrical singing of psalms and hymns based on the psalter. However, it was not unusual for Anglican clergymen to compose their own hymns for congregational singing on important feast days such as Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, and Ascension Day.

So, What Carols Did They Sing?

While it is likely that you wouldn’t recognize most of the songs they sang, there are a few Colonial Christmas carols from the late 1700s we still sing today. Here Comes Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, White Christmas, and Winter Wonderland are not among them as these were written in the 20th Century. Let’s look at some of the carols that were being sung in the early years of the United States.

In 1822 Davies Gilbert published, in England, a book of Christmas carols which he had sung growing up in the West of England. This first edition included the words and music for eight carols. The following year, in 1823, he published a second edition, expanding the count to Twenty songs. In addition, there are many carols documented to this period. How many of these do you know?

Adeste Fideles

"O Come, All Ye Faithful" (originally written in Latin as "Adeste Fideles") is a Christmas carol that has been attributed to various authors, including John Francis Wade (1711–1786), John Reading (1645–1692), King John IV of Portugal (1604–1656), and anonymous Cistercian monks. The earliest printed version is in a book published by Wade, but the earliest manuscript bears the name of King John IV. The translation of Adeste Fideles from Latin to English was by the English Catholic priest Frederick Oakeley in 1841 and so it would have been sung in Latin in our period.

The Coventry Carol

The "Coventry Carol" is an English Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was traditionally performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew: the carol itself refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed and takes the form of a lullaby sung by mothers of the doomed children.

A Virgin Most Pure

This is one of the most venerated and widely distributed of all English Christmas carols. The earliest known version of the text is in New Carolls for this Merry Time of Christmas (London, 1661).

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is an English traditional Christmas carol. It is one of the oldest extant carols, dated to the 16th century or earlier. The earliest known printed edition of the carol is in a broadsheet dated to c. 1760. The traditional English melody is in the minor mode; the earliest printed edition of the melody appears to be in a parody, in the 1829 Facetiae of William Hone.

Hark! Hark! What News the Angels Bring

Hark! Hark! What News the Angels Bring is a carol from the South Yorkshire village carols tradition. Written in the late 17th century, this carol fell out of use, except among the singers of rural Cornwall and South Yorkshire, from whose traditions this comes. William Sandys wrote the current tune in 1833.

Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night

"While shepherds watched their flocks" is a traditional Christmas carol describing the Annunciation to the Shepherds, with words attributed to Irish hymnist, lyricist, and England's Poet Laureate Nahum Tate. The exact date of Tate's composition is not known, but the words appeared in Tate and Nicholas Brady's 1700 supplement to their New Version of the Psalms of David of 1696. It was the only Christmas hymn authorized to be sung by the Anglican Church in the 1800s; before 1700 only the Psalms of David were allowed to be sung. This was because most carols, which had roots in folk music, were considered too secular and thus not used in church services until the end of the 18th century.


Greensleeves" is a traditional English folk song. A broadside ballad by the name "A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves" was registered by Richard Jones at the London Stationer's Company in September 1580, and the tune is found in several late-16th-century and early-17th-century sources. One interpretation of the lyrics is that Lady Green Sleeves was a promiscuous young woman, perhaps even a prostitute. At the time, the word "green" had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase "a green gown", a reference to the grass stains on a woman's dress from engaging in sexual intercourse outdoors.

Christmas and New Year texts were associated with the tune from as early as 1686, and by the 19th century almost every printed collection of Christmas carols included some version of words and music together, most of them ending with the refrain "On Christmas Day in the morning". The modern lyrics to the carol “What Child Is This,” which uses the Greensleeves tune, were first published around 1856. Unfortunately, there are no recordings of the various Christmas lyrics before it became associated with “What Child is This.”

Let All That Are to Mirth Inclined

"Let All You That are to Mirth Inclined", also known as "The Sinner's Redemption", is an English Christmas carol originating in the 1600s. The carol is about the Nativity of Jesus. It is not known when "The Sinner's Redemption" was first created, though it was mentioned as having been sung in the 1630s in a broadside newspaper and was regularly reprinted by them. The oldest written copy of the carol was found in 1709 under the title "The Sinner's Redemption, The Nativity of our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ, With His Life on Earth, and Precious Death on the Cross", in an undated collection by Thomas Deloney. The word "mirth" used in the carol was intended to stand for Christian religious joy in celebrating the birth of Jesus rather than "boisterous merriment". "The Sinner's Redemption" was also viewed to have inspired the Irish "Wexford Carol", as five of the six verses of the latter carol were based on "The Sinner's Redemption".

The First Nowel That the Angel Did Say

"The First Nowell", also known as "The First Noel (or Noël)", is a traditional English Christmas carol with Cornish origins, most likely from the early modern period, although possibly earlier. Thought to have originated in the 16th or 17th century, but possibly dating from as early as the 13th Century. The current combination of tune and lyrics first appeared in the early 1800s.

The Sussex Carol

The "Sussex Carol" is a Christmas carol popular in Britain, sometimes referred to by its first line "On Christmas night all Christians sing". Its words were first published by Luke Wadding, a 17th-century Irish bishop, in a work called A Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684). It is unclear whether Wadding wrote the song or was recording an earlier composition.

I Saw Three Ships

"I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)" is a traditional and popular Christmas carol and folk song from England. The earliest printed version of "I Saw Three Ships" is from the 17th century, possibly from Derbyshire, and was also published by William Sandys in 1833. The song was traditionally known as "As I Sat on a Sunny Bank” and was particularly popular in Cornwall. The lyrics mention the ships sailing into Bethlehem, but the nearest body of water is the Dead Sea about 20 miles away. The reference to three ships is thought to originate in the three ships that bore the purported relics of the Biblical magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. Another possible reference is to Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia, who bore a coat of arms "Azure three galleys argent". Another suggestion is that the ships are the camels used by the Magi, as camels are often referred to as "ships of the desert".

The Holly and the Ivy

"The Holly and the Ivy" is a traditional British folk Christmas carol. The song can be definitively traced only as far as the early nineteenth century, but the lyrics reflect an association between holly and Christmas dating at least as far as medieval times. The earliest version of this carol I could find is a ballad broadside printed by Henry Wadsworth, a Birmingham, England bookseller and Printer, between 1814 and 1818. Joshua Sylvester, in his 1861 book, A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, claimed it originated from "an old broadside, printed a century and a half since" [i.e., around 1711].

The Gloucestershire Wassail.

The Gloucestershire Wassail, also known as "Wassail! Wassail! All Over the Town", "The Wassailing Bowl" and "Wassail Song" [Not to be confused with “Here we Come A-wassailing” which is sometimes referred to as “The Wassail Song"] is an English Christmas carol from the county of Gloucestershire in England, dating back to at least the 18th century, but may be older. The author of the lyrics and the composer of the music are unknown. The first known publication of the song was in 1838 however, William Henry Husk's 1868 publication of the song had a reference to it being sung by wassailers in the 1790s in Gloucestershire.

The Cherry Tree Carol

"The Cherry-Tree Carol" is a ballad with the rare distinction of being both a Christmas carol and one of the Child Ballads. The song itself is incredibly old, sung in some form at the Feast of Corpus Christi in the early 15th century. The ballad relates an apocryphal story of the Virgin Mary, presumably while traveling to Bethlehem with Joseph for the census. In the most popular version, the two stop in a cherry orchard, and Mary asks her husband to pick cherries for her, citing her child. Joseph spitefully tells Mary to let the child's father pick her cherries. At this point in most versions, the infant Jesus, from the womb, speaks to the tree and commands it to lower a branch down to Mary, which it does. Joseph, seeing this miracle, at once repents his harsh words.

Joy to the World

Joy to the World is one of the most popular English Christmas carols. This favorite Christmas hymn is the result of a collaboration of at least three people and draws its initial inspiration not from the Christmas narrative in Luke 2, but from Psalm 98. The first collaborator was the English poet and dissenting clergyman, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). He paraphrased the entire Psalm 98 in two parts, and it first appeared in his famous collection, The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719).

The second collaborator was an unwitting one, George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), the popular German-born composer living in London. Though contemporaries in England, they did not collaborate on this hymn. Another person pieced together portions of Handel’s Messiah to make up the tune that we sing in North America. The opening bars for the chorus, “Lift up your heads,” was adapted to the incipit “Joy to the world.” An instrumental part of the opening tenor recitative, “Comfort ye,” provides a basis for the text “heaven and nature sing.” Such borrowings were common, the aesthetic notion being that the music of great musicians had an innate beauty.

The third collaborator who assured that this tune and text would appear together in the United States was the Boston music educator, Lowell Mason (1792-1872). It was Mason, a musician with considerable influence in his day, who published his own arrangement of Handel’s melodic fragments in Occasional Psalms and Hymn Tunes (1836) and named the tune Antioch. While this is not the only tune to which Watts’s text is sung, it is certainly the dominant one.

Although this article does not include all the Christmas carols that were, or could possibly have been, sung in the early years of the United States, we hope that article helps to get you into the Christmas spirit and will supply some guidance for those who wish to recreate the musical experience of that era. Hopefully you learned something you did not previously know about Christmas in late-18th and early-19th century America and will possibly feel stimulated to carry out some of your own research.

Please join us again in two-weeks as we prepare for New Year’s Eve by searching out information on what wines were consumed in early-19th century America and if they differed from those we regularly drink today.

While you are here, on our website, please take a moment to join the conversation and let us know what you think about the subject by putting your comments in the box at the bottom of this page. We would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


Anderson, Douglas D., and Richard Jordan. The Hymns and Carols of Christmas. 1996-2021. 20 October 2021.

DeSimone, David. "Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century." The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Vol 16, Nr. 4 Winter 1995-96.

Gilbert, Davies. Some Ancient Christmas Carols with the Tunes to Which They Were Formerly Sung. London: John Nichols and Son, 1823.

Hawn, C. Michael. History of Hymns. 1984-2021. 21 October 2021.

Sandy, Willian. Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. London: Richard Beckley, 1833.

Sylvester, Joshua. A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. London: John Camden Hotten, 1861.


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