Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago. These were pagan songs sung in celebration of the winter solstice, or mid-winter. Over time, wassailing and Christmas caroling went hand in hand in Tudor England. Carols were mostly religious in nature and loosely based on the story of the Nativity, although some were sung around the themes of hunting and feasting. Tudor caroling was initially accompanied by dancing, but eventually came to mean singing only.
Many carols sung in Tudor England are still sung today in a different form. Let’s look at the origins of a few of the most popular carols from Tudor England.
The lyrics of the “Coventry Carol” were written down in 1534 by Robert Croo and included in pageant depictions of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. The composer of the music is unknown but the music is also believed to date back to the 1500’s.
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully lullay
O sisters too,
How may we do
For to preserve this day?
This poor youngling,
For whom we sing,
By by, lully lullay
They lyrics to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" are traditional Olde English and are thought to date back to the 15th century, although the author is unknown. It is believed that this carol was sung to the gentry by town watchmen who earned additional money during the Christmas season. This is a carol we continue to enjoy today. The lyrics to this simple carol are reputed to be some of the oldest.
“The Holly and the Ivy” is thought to have pagan origins and could therefore date back over 1000 years. The author and composer of the carol are unknown. It is unusually fortunate that a carol like The Holly and the Ivy survived so long, especially during the stern Protestant period of the 17th century when carols were banned as merrymaking and thus sinful in nature.
The holly and the ivy,
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.