God Rest Ye Merry: Traditional Christmas Carols from Merry Old England

  

   

     Christmas Carols are almost as old as Christianity itself, reflecting the joy experienced by the faithful as they celebrated the birth of their Redeemer. Early European carols hold a particularly keen sense of wonder and awe, since the story of the Nativity was still relatively fresh in the cultural consciousness. The people really did find immediate cause to rejoice when they heard the news; it was the hope of their salvation, freedom from the bondage of sin, and liberation from the heartless gods of old. Some of these venerable carols have particularly fascinating back-stories. The following are just a few of my favorites from Merry Olde England:

“Adam Lay iBounden” 

      This 15th century carol dates back to the reign of King Henry V, when the vernacular tongue of Middle English began to come into its own and replace Latin on court documents. It was originally part of a Mystery Play, a dramatic performance used as a visual catechism for the common people, and it tells the story of Adam’s Fall as it relates to The Incarnation. Adam’s sin, it is purported, actually had “blessedness” since it set into motion the process by which God became a human being to share the supreme intimacy with us and ransom us again. Also, it prepared the way for Mary to become the “New Eve” and later The Queen of Heaven, our special advocate on high. 

Adam lay ibounden

Bounden in a bound

Four thousand winter

Thought he not too long

 

And all was for an apple

An apple that he took

As clerkes finden

Written in here book

 

Nay hadda the apple take been

The apple take been

Nay hadda never Our Ladye

A been heavene queene

 

Blessed be the time

That apple take was

Therefore we maun sigen,

Deo Gracias!

 

 “Boar’s Head Carol”  

       Another medieval carol, this one refers to a Christmas tradition continued into modern times at Oxford University. Legend has it that a student from Oxford was walking through the woods on his way to midnight mass. Suddenly, a wild boar charged out of the shadows and attacked him. The student promptly produced his silver-gilt Latin Psalter and struck the beast on the head with it. The boar’s was taken back to Oxford where the student and his friends enjoyed a lavish celebration in thanks to God for his preservation and quick-thinking. Every year afterwards on Christmas Eve, the tradition was kept alive.

 The Boar’s head in hand bear I

Bedecked with bay and rosemary

So I pray you, me masters, be merry

Quo estis in convivio!

 

Caput apri defero!

Reddens laudes Domino!

Caput ari defero!

Reddens laudes Domino!

 

The Boar’s head, as I understand

Is the rarest dish in all the land

Which thus bedecked with a gay garland

Let us severe cantico!

 

Our steward hath provided this

In honour of the King of Bliss

Which on this day to be served is

In Regenece Atrio! 

 

“Coventry Carol” 

       This carol used to be part of another Mystery Play put on in the city of Coventry, the rest of which has been lost to posterity. The lyrics are somewhat difficult to interpret word-for-word, but it is essentially a lament by the mothers of children were slain by King Herod during his hunt for The Christ Child. Hence, it is actually is actually in honor of the Holy Innocence, although some mistakenly believe it is referring to Baby Jesus. Actually, some of the verses could apply, taken into consideration His Passion to come. 

 

Lullee, lullay, thou little tiny child,

Bye, bye, lullee, lullay,

Lullee, lully, thou little tiny child,

Bye, bye, lullee, lullay

 

O sisters too, how may we do

For to preserve this day?

This poor youngling for whom we sing,

Bye, bye, lullee, lullay

 

Herod the king in his raging

Charged he hath this day

His men of might in his own sight

All young children to slay

 

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee

And every morn and day

For thy parting, neither say nor sing

Bye, bye, lullee, lullay

 

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” 

      Everyone knows this song, but few know its original purpose. Dating from between the 16th and 18th centuries, it sprung up in the streets of London and was sung by town watchmen to the gentry of the vicinity. This act of Christmas merry-making would earn the watchmen extra money during the Yuletide. As a final note, “God Rest Ye Merry” was a traditional greeting dating back to the time of Shakespeare. 

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Saviour

Was born on Christmas day,

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray

 

O Tidings of comfort and joy,

Comfort and joy,

O Tidings of comfort and joy

 

In Bethlehem in Jewry

This blessed babe was born

And laid within a manger

Upon this blessed morn

The which his mother Mary

Did nothing take in scorn

 

From God our Heavenly Father

The blessed angel came

And unto certain shepherds

Brought tidings of the same

How that in Bethlehem was born

The Son of God by Name

The Shepherds at those tidings

Rejoiced much in mind

And left their flocks a-feeding

In tempest, storm, and wind

And went to Bethlehem straightway

This blessed babe to find

 

And when to Bethlehem they came

Whereat this infant lay

They found him in a manger

Where oxen feed on hay

His mother Mary kneeling

Unto the Lord did pray

 

Now to the Lord sing praises

All ye within this place

And with true love and brotherhood

Each other now embrace

This holy tide of Christmas

All others doth deface 

 

“I Saw Three Ships” 

       This nursery rhyme-like ditty alludes to a legend about The Christ Child and The Virgin Mary visiting Britain with Joseph of Arimathea when he worked as a tin-trader for Imperial Rome as a tin-trader. Cornwall has is often identified as one of the main places they stayed. Joseph supposedly returned to Britain after the death and resurrection of Christ and planted the miraculous Glastonbury Thorn. It was said to have blossomed every Christmas and Easter. Even though the destination this carol is clearly Bethlehem, the reference to Jesus and Mary traveling on board ships is indicative of other journeys.

 

I saw three ships come sailing in

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

I saw three ships come sailing in

On Christmas Day in the morning

 

And what was in those Ships all three

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?

What was in those ships all three

On Christmas day in the morning?

 

Our savior, Christ, and His Ladye

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

Our savior, Christ, and His Ladye

On Christmas Day in the morning

 

Pray whither sailed those ships all three

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?

Pray whither sailed those ships all three

On Christmas Day in the morning?

 

Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem

On Christmas Day in the morning

 

And all the bells on earth shall ring

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

And all the bells on earth shall sing

On Christmas Day in the morning

 

And all the choirs in heaven shall sing

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

And all the choirs in heaven shall sing

On Christmas Day in the morning

 

Then let us all rejoice amain

On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

Then let us all rejoice amain

On Christmas Day in the morning

 

“Gloucestershire Wassail” 

     While this isn’t a carol per se, it does refer to a Yuletide tradition of particular significance. The word “wassail” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term meaning “good health”. A pre-Christian custom of “wassailing” apple trees involved sprinkling their roots with cider in hopes of a good harvest the next year…and to scare away any wood-nymphs who might be loitering around the vicinity! The better-known form of wassailing involves marching through the streets with a bowl of spiced brew and singing songs that request entry into houses to partake in the Christmas feast.

 

Wassail, wassail, all over the town!

Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown,

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree,

With a wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee!

 

And here is to Cherry and to his right cheek

Pray God send our master a good piece of beef

And a good piece of beef as we all may see

With a wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee!

 

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye

Pray God send our master and good Christmas pie

And a good Christmas pie as e’er he did see

With a wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee

 

And here is to Broad May and to her broad horn

Pray God send our master a good crop of corn

And a good crop of corn as e’er he did see

With a wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee

 

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear

Pray God send our master a happy New Year

And a happy New Year as we all may see

With a wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee!

 

And here is to Colly and to her long tail

Pray God send our master, he never may fail

A bowl of strong beer, I pray you draw near

And a jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear

 

And here’s to the maid with the lily white smock

Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock

Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin

For to let these jolly wassailers in!

 

     So the next time you’re at church with a hymnal on your lap or at a Christmas party with a mug of nog in your hand, relish the songs of this jubilant season and remember the stories behind the carols. They just go to show our mother country wasn’t called “merry” for nothing!

By Rosaria Marie 

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