Elizabethan Christmas: carols

Singing Elizabethan carols at Harvington Hall

Now we’re getting really near to Christmas, let’s have some music to get us in the mood. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania contrasts the long summer evenings with the cosiness of winter round the fire:
The human mortals want their winter cheer;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest

 Carols are the music most closely association with Christmas, but most of the carols we now sing come from the Victorian period, and even those that are earlier, like God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, and The Holly and the Ivy, probably don’t go back to Elizabethan days.


Trying to think of Christmas songs from Shakespeare’s time that we still know, I remembered Gaudete, which had a revival when it was recorded by the electric folk band Steeleye Span back in 1973, one of the few songs in Latin to make the top 20. It was first composed in the sixteenth century. Here’s a recording from the group’s 35th anniversary concert showing that Maddie Prior hasn’t lost her amazing voice.  And here’s a version by the Irish choir Anuna.

This recording of carols includes some that are traditional as well as more modern compositions: it’s by the Elizabethan Singers, and called Sir Cristemas: Carols Newly Composed and Arranged. You can hear each track by clicking on it.

 Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry made its first appearance in 1557 and remained popular for decades. Its verses contain advice on farming, country life and religion. It’s not great poetry, but it has charm. He describes the spirit of Christmas celebrations, including carols.
Of Christ cometh Christmas, the name with the feast,
A time full of joy to the greatest and least:
At Christmas was Christ (our Saviour) born;
The world through sin altogether forlorn. 

At Christmas the days do begin to take length,
Of Christ doth religion chiefly take strength.
As Christmas is only a figure or trope,
So only in Christ is the strength of our hope.

Elizabethan musicians

 At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor,
Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door?
At Christmas of Christ many Carols we sing,
And give many gifts in the joy of that King.

At Christmas in Christ we rejoice and be glad,
As only of whom our comfort is had:
At Christmas we joy altogether with mirth
For his sake that joyed us all with his birth.

 This is the first of a series of Christmas-themed posts which I hope you’ll enjoy over the next couple of weeks.

This entry was posted in Shakespeare's World and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Elizabethan Christmas: carols

  1. Admirable blog as always :), although to be frank I don’t see much sign of the rich banqueting with the poor.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      I agree, though there are so many admonitions advising the rich to share their food I wonder if they ever did!

  2. Jo Wilding says:

    I didn’t know Gaudete until Steeleye Span did it but have loved it ever since – thanks for the link Sylvia – takes me straight back to university days!

    One of my favourite carols, which Shakespeare may have known, is the beautiful haunting Coventry Carol which comes from one of the medieval Coventry mystery plays – the earliest surviving text of the lyrics dates from 1534 and the melody from 1591. It’s sung here by the choir of Westminster Cathedral. – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIvH5GdY4JE

    I recently had the great pleasure of singing in the Christmas Songs of Praise in Holy Trinity where Shakespeare is buried. It was recorded in early November and went out last night – it’s on BBC i-Player for the next six days at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b018ky4k/Songs_of_Praise_Stratfords_Christmas_Story/ . Sadly we didn’t do any Tudor carols.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for all this information! I remember singing an old carol at school, but couldn’t find much in the way of recordings of traditional carols.

Comments are closed.