This little screed on Christmas music comes about because I don't listen to commercial radio. That is because such channels are full of people trying to sell me used cars or banking services or beer and after a while I want to go over and beat my radio to death with a stick.
But durn it, at Christmas I want to listen to Christmas music, so I ventured out into the musical world beyond PBS. And it was painful. After I had not beaten my radio to flinders for several days, ('Flinders' is a fine old word, popular in the Regency, and it means splinters or fragments. It's of Dutch or Scandinavian origin and always plural.) I decided to compile a playlist and the heck with the radio.
But all that got me thinking about Christmas carols.
There have always been songs and dances celebrating the winter solstice and, indeed, all the other high points of life in the community. (The word 'carol' originally meant a circle dance.) Christmas songs, sung in the local language, go back to the Middle Ages. A Shropshire chaplain listed twenty-five 'caroles of Christmas' in 1426. Go Shropshire chaplain.
So I got to wondering which Christmas carols my Regency characters might have sung.
We got some oldies and goodies.
The Latin words to Adeste Fideles go way back. Medieval. The music we still use today dates from 1751. This is a true living fossil, this song. My Regency folks could have belted out this
carol in Latin and it would have sounded entirely familiar to us.
The English words, however, are Victorian. Maybe my folks translated their own homegrown English version.
According to one theory, Adeste Fideles was a particular favorite of Jacobite sympathizers. Jacobites saw the song as symbolically calling those faithful to Prince Charles. The Regem angelorum — King of the Angels — well, that could be sung as Regem anglorum — King of the English — couldn't it?
God Rest Ye Merry , Gentlemen is another very old carol. The lyrics pop up about 1650 as 'Sit ye, Merry Gentlemen'. The words were sung to a variety of tunes in Georgian and Regency times, but one of those variations was our modern version.
God Rest Ye and another old favorite, I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, were often printed together In Eighteenth Century broadsides. They were sort of the Billboard Favorites of their day. Definitely our Regency folks would have known them.
A traditional carol that's older than I would have guessed is The First Noel. (Noel being French for Christmas, the French having taken it from the Latin natalis meaning birthday and, no, I don't think those two words sound much alike.) The First Noel was published in an 1823 collection as a traditional Cornish carol, so likely it was bopping around the British Isles in the Regency.
Joy to the World. The lyrics are from 1719. The tune, alas, is later than the Regency. Our characters sing to a different drummer, as it were. Since we don't provide soundtracks to the books, we don't need to mention that.
And finally, we got The Twelve Days of Christmas, which has always struck me as one of the weirder traditional songs. I mean — rings, fine. Lords a leaping I can get behind. But what is it with the pear tree? Why is there a partridge in it? What does it all mean?
Well, it turns out TTDoC didn't exactly enter England as a Christmas carol. It made the leap into English in 1780, probably from French, where it seems to have been a song of some antiquity. In England TTDoC was offered as a Twelfth Night forfeits game. A leader would start out with a verse and folks repeated it. Then he added verse after verse and everyone tried to repeat them till one of the players made a mistake — probably forgot those seven swans aswimming — and owed a forfeit.
The forfeit? It depends on the story, of course … but I think it'll be kisses under the mistletoe.