Regency Christmas Traditions: Christmas Carols-Songs of Joy

Regency Christmas Traditons


Caroling and Christmas carols played a distinct part in regency era Christmas celebrations.

Start of Caroling

People have used songs and music as a part of celebration for as long as we have recorded history. The word carol comes from Latin the words meaning sing and joy. Thus carols are songs of joy.

English: Christmas Carols New and Old by Rev. ...

The songs we know as Christmas carols have both sacred and secular roots. Some began as hymns of the church. Da, puer, plectrum (Of the Father’s Love Begotten) written in the 3rd century by Aurelius Prudentius, is thought to be the oldest documented Christmas carol. Sacred carols continued to be written and sung throughout the middle ages. A chaplain in Shropshire noted twenty-five ‘caroles of Christmas’ in 1426.

Secular celebratory carols have an even longer history, well established in the British Isles by the time of Christianity. These songs were incorporated into rites that marked the arrival of each new season and integrated into observances of Michaelmas, Christmas, Easter and Mid-Summer Day.

By the 17th century, carols fell out of favor for most celebrations, except Christmas. Many of the songs retained their secular, even profane and sacrilegious nature. Consequently, when Cromwell came to power in the mid 1600’s, carols were strictly forbidden, as was any celebration of Christmas.

During the restoration of Charles II, carol singing was embraced once more. During the 18th century, the lyrics of Christmas carols became more decorous and gentile. They even became popular among the upper classes. Families sang carols in their homes and religious-themed carols were sung in the church. The Christmas carol

Caroling and Wassailing

The practice of going door to door singing carols was known in the time of Shakespeare. Groups of usually lower class men went singing from house to house and remained until someone paid them for the efforts. Payment was more likely to make them go away rather than in appreciation of their songs.

By the end of the 18th century, wassailing became less about outright begging and more about charity. Groups of working class men and women would go house to house looking for those with a candle in the window to signal they were welcome. If welcomed, they would sing and often receive coins, wassail, and food for their efforts.

During the Regency, groups of carolers from the local village often ended their evening of caroling at the local landowners manor house. Typically they would sing for the family and be treated to victuals and libations (frequently in the form of wassail) and a warm fire. In some villages, people joined together to sing carols from the church towers. Broad-sheets of the most popular carols were printed to assist in the singing. At times these public celebrations could become boisterous.

What Christmas carols might have been sungFirst Nowell stainer

Carols sung while going house to house included both secular and sacred songs. Some of the secular songs are still familiar today, including: Deck the Halls, Here We Come a-Wassailing, We Wish you a Merry Christmas and The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Carol hymns that might be familiar to today’s carol singers include:

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Night (written by Nahum Tate, published in 1702 ),

Adestes Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) published in France in 1760 and translated into English in 1841,

Joy to the World published by Isaac Watts in 1719 (traditional melody written 1836),

Hark the Herald Angels Sing written by Charles Wesley in 1739 (traditional melody written by Mendohlsson in 1840),

Angels from the Realms of Glory by James Montgomery in 1816 (melody written in 1867.)

The First Noel dates from the 18th century as a traditional Cornish carol and even older,

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In, whose lyrics found are found in 17th century texts.

As I was researching this article, I found an original text: Ancient Christmas Carols with the Tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England from 1822 which included both lyrics and music.

My youngest son was so thrilled with the find that he transcribed the music for two of these into a program to play and record the carols for you. You’ll have to imagine the words in your head though, as you definitely don’t want me singing along to these! Here are the lyrics and music for two of them.  

The Lord at first did Adam make

The Lord at first did Adam make Out of the dust and clay, And in his nostrils breathed life, E’ en as the Scriptures. say. And then in Eden’s Paradise He placed him to dwell, That he within it should remain To dress and keep it well.

Now let good Christians all begin An holy life to live, And to rejoice and merry be, For this is Christmas Eve.

Now let good Christians all begin An holy life to live, And to rejoice and merry be, For this is Christmas Eve.

(click below to hear the music)

Here’s a modern rendition:


Whilst Shepherds watched their flocks by night

Whilst Shepherds watched their flocks by night All seated on the ground’ The Angel of the Lord came down, And glory shone all round

Fear no, said he, for might dread Has seized their troubled mind; Glad tidings of great joy I bring To you and all mankind.

To you in David’s town this day Is born of David’s line, A Savior which is Christ the Lord, And this shall be the sign

The Heav’nly babe you there shall find To human view display’d’ All mean wrapp’d in swaddling bands And in a manger laid.

Thus spake the seraph and forthwith Appeared a shining throng Of angels praising God and thus Addressed their joyful song:

All glory be to God on high And to the earth be peace; Good-will henceforth from Heaven to men, Begin and never cease.

 (click below to hear the music)

Here’s a modern rendition:


Bourne, Joanne. Caroling, Caroling in the Regency. (2012)

Boyle, Laura. The Origins of Regency Era Christmas Carols (2011)

Hazzard , Kieran. A Regency Christmas. (2013)

Gilbert, Davies. Ancient Christmas Carols with the Tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England. (1822) London: John Nichols and son

Kane, Kathryn. Dancing the Easter Carols. (2011)

Walker, Regan. Christmas Traditions in Regency England

Waugh, Joanna. Christmas Music. (2008)


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    • Carol hoyt on December 22, 2015 at 8:26 am
    • Reply

    Thank you! Fun and informative. Il listen to the music later when I borrow wifi!

  1. I like hearing Christmas carols and even participated in carolling twice in my life. Thanks for sharing this great research with us.

    • Pam Hunter on December 22, 2015 at 8:34 am
    • Reply

    Very interesting and informative! Thank you!

    • Susan S on December 22, 2015 at 9:55 am
    • Reply

    Really enjoyed this! Thank you. Christmas
    trees and Christmas carols are my particular
    favorite parts of the season!

    • Linda A. on December 22, 2015 at 9:58 am
    • Reply

    wow – a lot of very interesting information! Thank you for sharing.

    • Janis on December 22, 2015 at 10:12 am
    • Reply

    A very interesting read!

    Certainly Christmas carols are some of the prettiest music ever written.

    • Eva Edmonds on December 22, 2015 at 4:34 pm
    • Reply

    The research and video clips were wonderful! Thank you for the beautiful music. Kudos to your son, too.

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