Christmas carol lyrics: what do the words from favourite carols mean?

The average English Christmas carol may well be humble of musical and literary stature. But it routinely tows with it a train of rich cultural baggage for which the keys have all too often been mislaid or lost.

References to medieval religious traditions, archaic words and ancient customs now touch the ears of those of every faith, of no faith or with a blind devotion to conspicuous yuletide consumption. What matters, though, is that the joyful spirit and the eternal freshness of old carols have survived Puritan proscriptions, Victorian modernisers and post-modern cynicism.

Countless millions today know the tune, if not the words, of at least one traditional Christmas carol. Thanks to dogged scholarship by twentieth-century collectors and editors, we can unlock the meaning and trace the roots of our favourite carols. The following examples should add spice to flavour ten of the most popular pieces in the Christmas repertoire.

Find hundreds of Christmas carol lyrics on our website

Christmas carol lyrics

Wassail! Wassail! All over the Town! (The Gloucestershire Wassail)

English traditional

Christmastide luck-visits or ‘goodings’ formed a widespread custom in England during the early modern period, part of a seasonal relaxation of the strict forms and order of society that stretched back to the Middle Ages. The Gloucester Wassail opens with a keyword in the luck visitor’s vocabulary, one that grew to carry a meaning not so far removed from today’s ‘trick or treat’.

Wassail derives, by way of Norman French, from the Old Norse salutation wesheill, literally ‘be whole’ or ‘be well’. Joseph Strutt, in the third volume of his The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801), refers to the wassail bowl, ‘which was carried about by young women on New Year’s Eve, who went from door to door … singing.’ The company of carollers expected ‘a small gratuity in return’.

The white bread mentioned in The Gloucestershire Wassail’s first verse was a foodstuff of the wealthy, suggesting that wassail singers began their rounds at the ‘big house’. The choristers were also on the lookout for ‘Christmas pie’, made from game, and ‘a bowl of the best’.

The Holly and the Ivy

English traditional

Known in Germany as ‘Christ’s thorn’, holly or the holy-tree served as an emblem of the Roman feast of Saturnalia. The Saxons also used holly and ivy in their winter rites. Although the Druids regarded ivy as a portent of death, the early Christians came to associate the plant’s evergreen properties with everlasting life.

Cecil Sharp notated the words and melody of the most familiar ‘Holly and Ivy’ carol from the singing of Mrs Mary Clayton at Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. Sharp drew on other sources for the version he published in 1911, which has since become a staple of the Christmas carol repertoire. Several ‘holly and ivy’ carols survive from the medieval period, in which masculine holly and feminine ivy are presented as rivals.

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Here is the popular melody composed by Henry Walford Davies:

In The Holly and the Ivy, holly symbolises the Virgin Mary, while the blood-red juice of its berry, the bitterness of its bark and the sharpness of its prickles represent the suffering of the Crucifixion. Chaucer’s wayward cockerel Chauntecleer could crow ‘merrier than the merry organ’, perhaps inspiring the author of the Gloucester carol’s refrain.

The Holly and the Ivy made it into our list of the best Christmas carols of all time.

O come, all ye Faithful (Adeste, fideles)

Anon. c. 1740

This Christmas hymn, which neatly carries the simple qualities of the best carols, poses few linguistic teasers. But O come, all ye Faithful owns a history that took serious scholarly detective work to unravel, as revealed in 1947 in a pamphlet by Jean Stéphan of Buckfast Abbey.

Dom Jean identified the hymn’s earliest manuscript source, now dated c.1740 and associated with the English College in Douai, France. He ascribed it to the English Catholic John Francis Wade, a well-known copyist resident in Douai, active in Lancashire in the 1750s and known to leading London-based Catholic musicians, Thomas Arne and Samuel Webbe among them.

The editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols suggest that Arne, composer of ‘Rule, Britannia!’, may have contributed to the hymn. It seems likely, however, that Wade created four Latin verses, beginning Adeste, fideles, and probably set them to music. The tune in the form we know it today was first published in 1782 in An Essay on the Church Plain Chant. Three extra verses were added in the nineteenth century.

Good King Wenceslas

Melody from Piae Cantiones (1582); words by J.M. Neale (1818-66)

If the Rev. J.M. Neale, warden of Sackville College, East Grinstead, Sussex, had set his poetical sights elsewhere in bohemian martyrology, we might count ‘Johann Nepomuk looked out’ among our favourite Christmas carols. As it was, the noted Greek and Latin scholar, an inveterate supplier of hymn texts, recalled the legend of Saint Wenceslaus (Vaclav) or Wenceslas in its Germanised form. Result: the much-loved Good King Wenceslas.

The 10th-century ruler of Bohemia attempted to establish Christianity among the ruling Czech families, only to be murdered in September 929 by his brother’s supporters. Neale’s dodgy verse presents a colourful narrative, yet fails to explain why king and page took such trouble to deliver firewood to a peasant living nearby the ‘forest fence’.

The author probably took his lead from the acts of charity customary on Boxing Day, the feast of Saint Stephen, otherwise known as the Christian protomartyr. Neale set his words to a fourteenth-century spring carol preserved in the Finnish Piae Cantiones of 1582, which had been unveiled in England in 1853 by G.J.R. Gordon, Her Majesty’s Envoy to the court of Sweden. The rejuvenated carol was first published in 1853-54.

Sans Day Carol, or The Holly Bears a Berry

English traditional

Like The Holly and the Ivy, the Sans Day Carol (or St Day Carol) presents the traditionally masculine Holly as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, its natural range of green and red berries fancifully extended to include fruits of white and black.

The repetition of the opening phrase in each verse underlines the poem’s powerful imagery, linking the holly’s berries with Jesus’s birth, crucifixion, death and resurrection. Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw, editors of the original Oxford Book of Carols, reported that the carol’s catchy tune and its first three verses were notated by the Rev. G.H. Doble from the singing of W. D. Watson.

Dan Watson learned the words and music from Thomas Beard, an elderly inhabitant of the Cornish village of St Day, two miles east of Redruth. The Breton Saint Day or They, abbot of Saint Guénole de Landévennec, was widely worshipped in Cornwall. Watson translated Beard’s folk-carol into Cornish, creating a fourth verse that has since been added to the work’s familiar English form.

I saw three ships come sailing in

English traditional

In December 1644, the Puritan-dominated English parliament voted to turn Christmas Day into a time of fasting and repentance, ‘because it may call to remembrance … the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast … into an extreme forgetfulness of [Christ], by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights….’ Carols were totally abolished five years later, replaced by drab Puritan hymns.

English folk carols proved stubbornly resistant to parliamentary decree or extremes of religious fundamentalism. The earliest recorded text of I saw three ships dates from a 1666 publication, although its folk origins are almost certainly much older.

The carol’s legendary ‘plot’ concerns the Magi, those three wise men from the East, known in medieval lore as the Three Kings of Cologne. Tradition has it that the Emperor Constantine’s mother brought their remains from Byzantium to Milan, from where Frederick Barbarossa had their skulls shipped to Cologne Cathedral in 1162. ‘Our saviour Christ’ and the Virgin Mary become substitute passengers in the carol’s most popular form, although one version from Humberside mentions three crawns or skulls ‘ganging to Coln upon Rhine’.

The Coventry Carol

16th century

When Thomas Sharp’s Dissertations on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries, anciently performed in Coventry appeared in 1825, its pages contained a poorly transcribed copy of the songs from the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, one of the mystery plays performed annually in Coventry since the 1390s on the feast of Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday).

Part of the sixteenth-century manuscript containing these plays was destroyed in a fire in 1879, leaving Sharp’s book as an important but corrupt source for the music of what modern editors have dubbed The Coventry Carol. This lullaby is sung towards the play’s end, as the holy family makes its escape; meanwhile, Herod’s soldiers arrive and carry out their orders to slaughter all young children. The mothers are left to ‘morne and say’ (grieve and sigh) for the loss of their infants.

The Boar’s Head Carol

English traditional

Just as holly and ivy became essential decorative items in the popular celebration of Christmas, the roasting and presentation of a boar’s head, served with mustard, provided a suitably extravagant preface to yuletide feasts.

The tradition’s roots probably lie in pagan fertility rites. The best known of all surviving late medieval boar’s head carols is still sung in procession each year at Queen’s College, Oxford. Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s Alsatian-born apprentice and successor, published a version of the text in his Christmasse Carolles Newly Emprynted at London in the flete street in 1521.

The tune used by the Queen’s College revellers appeared in print in 1860, its refrain revised just over forty years later. ‘So many as are at the feast’ (Quot estis in convivio) are called to be merry by a solo voice. ‘The boar’s head I bring, giving praises to the Lord,’ (Caput apri defero Reddens laudes Domino), respond the choir.

The Seven Joys of Mary

English traditional

Much of the symbolism of this carol, generated by the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, has now lost its full weight of meaning. The Seven Joys of Mary today sounds more like a nursery rhyme than a work of popular devotion, an impression intensified by the jaunty nature of its surviving folk-carol melody.

In pre-Reformation England, Marian worshippers generally addressed their prayers to the Virgin in groups of five. The so-called Joys traditionally comprised the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Assumption, although the Annunciation and Coronation also appear in medieval carols of the Five Joys.

Religious reforms had little effect on the popularity of the number carol, although Mary’s joys gradually increased as the tradition lost touch with its Rosary-inspired roots. In many texts, the Assumption and Ascension were dropped in favour of making the lame to walk and the blind to see, while reading the bible and restoring the dead to life were added to the list. Ten- and twelve-fold versions of this carol include the rare joys of bringing the crooked straight, turning water into wine and writing without a pen.

King Herod and the Cock

English traditional

As legendary carols go, King Herod and the Cock gets its message across without wasting a word. The star of the Nativity shines brightly in King Herod’s chamber, its significance explained to the troubled ruler by the Wise Men. ‘A princely babe was born that night/ No king could e’er destroy,’ they report.

Herod points to a roasted cockerel in a dish and tells his visitors that, if their story is true, the bird ‘shall crow full fences [times] three’. The cock ‘thrustened’ or pushed out its chest and, ‘by God’s own hand, ‘did crow full fences three./ In the dish where he did stand’. This folk-carol’s traditional tune and words, as sung by Mrs Plumb of Armscote, Worcestershire, were first written down by Cecil Sharp around a century ago.

Past three o’clock

Long before the invention of Greenwich Mean Time, townsfolk were made aware of the hour, almost painfully so, by the ringing of church bells by day and the antics of the bellman and waits by night.

The tune of Past three o’clock appears to have been in the repertory of the London waits, a group of musicians responsible for keeping watch between eleven at night and five in the morning from the Monday following All Hallows Day to the week before Christmas and other times of the year. During Christmas the waits, ever ready to put on a show for civic bigwigs, came in from the cold to perform carols and other seasonal tunes.

Past three o’clock carries an authentic refrain to remind listeners of the watchman’s cold and frosty world, newly harmonised in the late 1800s by Charles Wood. The words of the carol’s verse were freshly crafted to suit Wood’s rustic setting by G. R. Woodward. Few carols can compete with such immortal lines as ‘Hinds o’er the pearly,/ Dewy lawn early’ or ‘Cheese from the dairy/ Bring they for Mary’.

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