The reformation of Christmas carols?

Jonathan Willis

Merry Christmas everybody! By now, the last scraps of turkey have hopefully been consumed, the last of the wrapping paper been thrown away. You might have decided to hit the sales; you might even be back at work; and you may also have asked yourself one or more of the following questions: ‘what shall we doe in the long winter nights: how shall we passe away the time on Sundayes, what wold you have us doe in the Christmas Hollydayes’? No need to risk a family feud by dusting off the monopoly board just yet, because John Rhodes, the Jacobethan ‘minister of Enborne’ (Berkshire) anticipated just such a need amongst ‘the Schollers of pettie Schooles’ and ‘the poore Countrieman and his familie’.[1]

christmas-tree-and-fireplaceRhodes’ solution for chasing away the winter blues, and passing the long winter evenings, was simple: sing! Rhodes dedicated his book for such as ‘are naturally given to sing’, so that they might ‘please their merrie minds a little’, and that by winning them ‘to sing good things’ they might ‘forsake evill’. Early modern carols were primarily a popular tradition, and Rhodes’ efforts might be mistrusted on two fronts. Firstly, his aim was clearly a moralising one, recalling the original purpose of metrical psalms, to supplant vain, bawdy or worldly songs with more godly fare. Secondly, pastiches of pastoral or country songs were a moderately popular genre, and examples of ‘countrie’ carols were often affected rather than genuine. In 1611, the enterprising composer Thomas Ravenscroft attempted to cover all his bases in Melismata Musicall phansies, by including a blend of tunes, striving to please ‘the noblest of the court, liberallest of the country, and freest of the city’ in their own respective ‘elements’.

RhodesRhodes included two Christmas carols in his collection.[2] A Carroll for Christmas day, to be sung to the tune of ‘Rogeero’ (Rogero was a popular ballad tune), outlined the story of the creation of the world, the fall of mankind following Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, the covenant made to Abraham and the Jews, and finally the coming of Christ to save mankind. The consonance of the Old and New Testaments, and Christ’s prefiguration by the ceremonies of Israel, are explained neatly and effectively – not the usual Christmas carol fare! Amongst these more didactic elements are the familiar cast of shepherds, angels, and swaddling clothes. Another Carroll for Christmas day: made as if it were spoken by Christ to Adam and his posteritie also dwells on original sin, on God’s goodness in sending his son to earth for redress, and on shepherds, angels, Bethlehem and the manger.

Perhaps the emphasis on original sin is a little alien, but the elements of the nativity are clearly familiar to us today. This warmth and wonder of ox, ass, starlight and hay, is in stark contrast, however, to pre-reformation printed carols. One anonymous carol from 1528 begins:

Mary moder come and se
Thy sone is nayled on a tre
Hande and fote he may not go
His body is wrapped all in wo.[3]

KeleThe emphasis on original sin, and on the significance of Christ as undoing the harm done by Adam, is still clear: Christ is sent ‘to bring us all to heaven blyss/For Adam that dyde amysse’. But the rosy glow of the nativity is replaced by the bleakness and pain of the Crucifixion:

From his heed unto his too
His skynne is torne and fleshe also
His body is bothe wane and blo
And nayled he is on a tre.

Richard Kele’s Christmas carolles newely imprinted, published in 1545, continues the theme.[4] The first carol takes the image of the royal banner from the medieval hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt, but moves on to a sustained consideration of Christ’s passion:

Behold my body how Jewes it donge
With knots of whipcord & scourges strong
As stremes of a well the blode out sprong
On every syde
The knottes were knyt
Ryght well made with wyt
They made woundes wyde.

fetchimageFour carols randomly chosen, two pre-reformation and two post-, are not enough to argue conclusively for a broad shift or trend. These texts, however, do seem to suggest an evolution in perceptions about what Christmas carols were for. These pre-reformation carols were certainly not devoid of theological content, but they were primarily devotional in tone, a means of reflecting on the passion, on Christ’s suffering, and on God’s mercy in first sending and then sacrificing his only begotten son. The post-reformation carols are more overtly theological, much more narrative, and above all more didactic in tone. They emphasise not Christ’s death, but his birth, and God’s mercy in redressing Adam’s transgression through the incarnation.

Jessica Martin has written recently about how reformed authors struggled to find the right words to describe the events of the passion, and in these post-reformation Christmas carols the dangers of idolatry are avoided by concentrating on the mystery and wonder of the nativity and incarnation, rather than the horrors of the crucifixion.[5] The function of these later texts is not devotion or meditation, but education and reformation:

This is the day of our great joye,
If we will joy therein:
And not assign this blessed time,
To vanitie and sinne.
But evermore in vertues store,
To spend our daies aright,
Which God grant us through Christ Jesus,
To doe with all our might.


[1] Not much appears to be known about Rhodes, but he was the author of several interesting texts published in the early seventeenth century, including An answere to a Romish rime (1602 – two editions), an epitaph on the death of Archbishop Whitgift (1604) and a briefe summe of the gunpowder treason (1606 – two editions). His 1637 the countrie mans comfort claims to be a revised version of an earlier treatise, written in 1588 in the wake of the armada, but ESTC does not record it.

[2] John Rhodes, The countrie mans comfort. Or Religious recreations fitte for all well disposed persons (1637), STC2: 20961.

[3] Anon, [Christmas carols] (Southwark, 1528?), STC2: 5204.3.

[4] Richard Kele, Christmas carolles newely inprynted (1545), STC2: 5204.5.

[5] Jessica Martin, ‘English reformed responses to the Passion’, in idem and Alec Ryrie (eds), Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain, (2012).

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2 thoughts on “The reformation of Christmas carols?

  1. Pingback: Christmas History A'la Carte12-10-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

  2. Pingback: Merry Christmas from the Monster! | the many-headed monster

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