Traditional Christmas Carols

The Twelve Days of Christmas

For many, this song is nothing more than a nonsensical song.   However, in the sixteenth century, this song became one of the most important teaching tools used by the Catholic church.  During this time, the only legal Christian denomination allowed was the Church of England.  Catholics, who spoke of their faith, could be arrested and tried.  Many of the Catholics in England went underground and chose to study their doctrine as if they were a secret society.   One of the most successful codes to appear in the form of a Christmas carol was the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas.   No one suspected the meaning of the lyrics.  Most passed off the carol as the fancies of a young, love sick man. It was not interpreted as the catechism taught to young children.

The partridge in the pear tree represents Jesus.

The two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments.

Three French hens symbolize faith, hope and charity.

Four calling birds stand for the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Five golden rings refer to the first five Old Testament books known as the Torah by Jews.

Six geese a-laying represent the six days of creation.

Seven swans a-swimming was encoded to reveal the mystery of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit referred to by Paul’s writings in Roman 12:6-8.  These gifts include prophesy, service, teaching, leadership, giving, encouraging, and mercy.

Eight maids-a milking refer to the eight beatitudes mentioned in Matthew 5:3-10.   The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemaker, and the righteous are extolled for their virtues.

Nine ladies dancing represents the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5).   These include love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.

Eleven pipers piping stand for the 11 faithful apostles.

Twelve drummers drumming symbolize the 12 points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.

The First Noel

This Christmas song tells the story of “The First Noel,” which is the French word for Christmas.   This song dates back to the 13th or 14th century during the time of the Miracle Plays.  In Europe, dramatizations of favorite Bible stories, especially for the holidays, were popular.   The tune may be either French or English.   “The First Noel” was written in the form of a folk song.   The way the sentences are structured indicates that the author had no formal language training.  During the Middle Ages, English peasants would cut down a huge tree for a Yule log.  They cut out a hollow in the tree’s core and filled it with spices and oil.  The log was placed in the fireplace on Christmas Eve and kept lit for the twelve days of Christmas until January 6, which was the day the Wise Men arrived with gifts.  As the Yule log was lit, children sang this folk carol.    This tune was first published with words, by a lawyer, William Sandys, in 1833 in his edition of Christmas Carols.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

This old church hymn dates to medieval times and was sung during Advent in old monasteries by pious monks.  It was only sung in Latin and used in Catholic masses.  In the 1800’s the refrain, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel” was extracted from some plainsong or liturgical chant sequences.  This hymn flows freely since it has no specific rhythmic scheme.  For the people of the Dark Ages who could not read, this hymn educated them about the New and Old Testament views of the Messiah.    This song became one of the most important of all songs in the history of the church.   It brought alive the story of Christ during years of ignorance and darkness.

The Friendly Beasts

angelineastlargeThis traditional song dates back to the 12th century in England.  The tune probably originated in medieval France.  In this song, the animals that were present in the stable are celebrated.   These animals include the donkey which Mary rode, the cow that gave up its manger, the sheep that provided wool for a blanket, the dove that cooed the Baby, and the camel that brought the Wise Men from the East.  All of the animals sing of the gifts they give to the Infant King.

What Child Is This?

This carol is sung to the tune of “Greensleeves,” which has a long history.   This Victorian song can trace its history to King Henry VIII who was thought to have written the lyrics.  William Shakespeare mentioned the song twice in his play, “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”  This haunting melody is thought to predate Henry VIII by hundreds of years.   Three hundred years later in 1865, William Dix sat down to pen a poem entitled, “The Manger’s Throne.”  Dix was writing hymns and poems during a time that Christmas was not a commercial celebration.  This poem was printed in magazines. The lyrics to the song were written in a single session.  In this song, Dix imagined visitors coming upon the manger and wondering who the child was who lay before them.  The simple verses declared the child’s divine nature.  Later, an unknown Englishman, coupled the lyrics with the melody of “Greensleeves.”  The song became known as the popular carol, “What Child Is This?”   It is one of the loveliest of all carols ever sung.

The Coventry Carol

religiousnativitywithshepherdsThe Coventry Carol dates from the 16th century.    It was taken from a pageant put on by the tailors of Coventry, England on the steps of the city’s cathedral between 1534 and 1584.   This song was partly based on an old morality play performed for the entertainment of monarchs.  It was sung by the actors who portrayed the women of Bethlehem.  This song was a lament for the children that King Herod would have slaughtered in order to slay the “King of the Jews.”   Coventry Carol illuminates the importance of the morality plays for conveying the stories from the Bible.