Christmas: The curious stories behind our favourite cards

So who exactly was King Wenceslas? Why was 'Silent Night' sung in the trenches? And were those gentlemen really merry? Every Christmas we hear the words, but few of us have any idea what most carols are about. Ed Caesar peers behind the holly and the ivy


Silent Night

During the Christmas truce of 1914, when British and German soldiers decided to call a temporary halt to the nightmare of trench warfare, it was "Silent Night" or "Stille Nacht" that united the troops in song. It was, surmised historians, one of the few carols that both sets of men knew by heart, and it is testimony to its international status: it has been translated into 300 languages.

The German lyrics of the song were composed in 1816 by an Austrian priest called Josef Mohr, but the recalcitrant father did not show them to his friend, the headmaster Franz Gruber, until Christmas Eve 1818. Mohr asked his friend if he might compose a tune and guitar accompaniment, so that "Stille Nacht" might be sung at that night's midnight mass - then only a few hours away.

The choice of a guitar arrangement, though, was a contentious one. Guitars were associated with drinking songs, and at first Gruber refused. However, the organ at the Nicola-Kirche in Oberndorf was not working that night (legend has it that mice had eaten out the bellows), and Gruber felt compelled to compose a guitar arrangement. It was a huge hit with the Christmas singers, and has since gone on to become the world's favourite carol.

Silent night, Holy night
All is calm, all is bright
'Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from Heaven afar
Heav'nly hosts sing Alleluia
Christ the Saviour is born
Christ the Saviour is born

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth

Corpus Christi Carol

Although the "Corpus Christi Carol" is often sung at Christmas, it can be performed throughout the year. With good reason - no one is sure what the carol is about. Despite this confusion, the oldest version, which dates from the 16th century, has remained in the English choral canon.

There was a theory, extant in choral scholarship for most of the 20th century, that the carol concerned the myth of the Holy Grail. The knight is thought by some to be the Fisher King, who in Arthurian legend was wounded in the legs, and who was the protector of the Holy Grail. But there are also obvious references to the Crucifixion in the "ston, Corpus Christi wretyn theron".

Perhaps the most original reading contends that it is written about the execution of Anne Boleyn, whose badge was a falcon. Whatever the truth is, Benjamin Britten's haunting arrangement makes the "Corpus Christi Carol" one of the most affecting of all carols.

Lulley, lulley, lully, lulley,
The faucon hath born my mak away.

He bare hym up, he bare hym down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hanged with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede,
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bed ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.
And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston,
"Corpus Christi" wretyn theron.

Joy to the World

Although "Joy to the World" is now a mainstay of Christmas carol services in churches all over the world, its writer, Isaac Watts, was an outcast from the religious establishment. A nonconformist, Watts was banned from Oxford and Cambridge, and was educated instead at Stoke Newington's Dissenting Academy. It did not stop him writing 750 hymns.

A whiff of plagiarism, though, surrounds the melody. Adapted and arranged by the American composer Lowell Mason, "Joy to the World" sounds suspiciously like Handel in a number of places. The theme of the chorus ("and heaven and nature sing") is lifted directly out of the "Comfort Ye" recitative in Messiah, while the first four notes of the carol match the opening line of "Glory to God" from the same work.

It is said that the tune's similarity to elements of Messiah troubled Mason throughout his life, and the composer acknowledged his debt to the German by calling his tune, "Antioch, from Handel". However, Professor William Studwell, the carol expert, thinks Mason was too hard on himself. "Maybe he really did think he stole the melody, but no serious researcher thinks anyone but Mason deserves the credit," he says.

Opening verse:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

Deck The Hall

Pedants are quick to correct overenthusiastic singers who implore their audience to "deck the halls with boughs of holly". The correct opening line of the song should read "deck the hall with boughs of holly", although why that is important is anyone's guess. The line about donning "our gay apparel" is of more obvious concern. Lycra? Leather caps? The mind boggles.

"Deck the Hall", although often sung in churches, has secular origins. The melody, in particular, belongs to a Welsh winter carol, "Nos Galan", with what would become the "fa la la" sections originally played on a harp. The carol only passed into English usage with a version that was written by an anonymous American in the mid-19th century.

Opening verse:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule tide carol,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night

In the 18th century, "While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night" was the only hymn authorised by the Church of England, a testament to its central status in the English choral tradition. The carol is now sung to a tune called the "Winchester Old", by Christopher Tye (1500-1572), who was Master of the Choristers at Ely Cathedral. A tune for the carol was also written by Handel, although it is now rarely sung.

The words were written by an engaging character called Nahum Tate, who would gain infamy late in his career for being the man who attempted to improve the endings to Shakespeare's tragedies. Born in Dublin, Tate became Poet Laureate in 1692, and the text to "While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night" first appeared in print in his 1700 bestseller, A Supplement to the New Version of Psalms.

Opening verse:

While shepherds watched their
flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around,
And glory shone around.

Good King Wenceslas

Wenceslas I, the Duke of Bohemia, may have been "good" in the eyes of the Church, but he was unpopular enough to be hacked to death at the doors of a church in a town called Stará Boleslav. Brought up by his grandmother, Saint Ludmila, Wenceslas acceded to the throne aged 18, and proceeded to bring Christianity to the Bohemians. His proselytising ways, however, caused him to be reviled, particularly by his younger brother - who plotted his downfall and death.

The carol itself dates from the 13th century, and concerns a story of Wenceslas sending his page out to give alms to a peasant on St Stephen's Day (Boxing Day). When the page struggles in the bitter cold, the King lends him his footprints to walk in. Not a classic story, but one which nevertheless caught the attention of the British envoy to Stockholm, G J R Gordon, in 1853. Gordon picked up a rare 1582 copy of the Swedish/ Finnish Piae Cantiones, which included the carol, and gave it to the Reverend John Mason Neale and the Reverend Thomas Helmore, who, later in 1853, translated the carols for English audiences. Although it was given new words by Neale, the tune to "Good King Wenceslas" remained as it had for centuries, the same as "Tempus Adest Floridum" (Spring has unwrapped her flowers), a carol traditionally sung in the spring.

Opening verse:

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho' the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight gath'ring winter fuel.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Charles Wesley, the godfather of English hymns and one of the rare Brits to have been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, wrote the lyrics to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" in 1739, although the carol was originally, and less catchily, entitled "Hark! How all the welkin rings."

Despite the upbeat message of the hymn - "Glory to the new-born king!" - the maudlin Methodist specifically requested that his words be accompanied by sombre music: a request that was adhered to for a hundred years. Congregations in the 18th and early 19th centuries sang "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" to a plodding, miserable melody.

It took some unusual circumstances to break Wesley's gloom. The German composer Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata in 1840 called "Festgesang" (festival song), to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. And, in 1855, an English musician, William Hayman Cummings, heard the second chorus of "Festgesang" - "Gott ist Licht" (God is light) - and adapted "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" to its tune.

That version exists to this day, although the third verse descant, lovingly trotted out by enthusiastic trebles up and down the country, was added by David Willcocks in 1961. The warbling American diva Mariah Carey also smeared her own brand of saccharine gloop on Mendelssohn's barnstormer when she recorded an interpretation of the carol in 1994.

Opening verse:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations, rise.
Join the triumph of the skies.
With th'angelic hosts proclaim
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
Hark! The herald angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King!

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

It's all about the comma. The first line of this rousing English carol is often punctuated "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen", which is a fine enough sentiment, but wrong. The first line should read: "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen". "Rest", in this instance, means keep, and "merry" means strong or illustrious, so the line now translates as, "God keep you strong gentlemen". One legend is that the song was a sycophantic appeal by town watchmen to the gentry, who would give cash handouts at Christmas.

The carol's attempt to extort cash from the moneyed classes did not always meet with success. The following is from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol: "At the first sound of 'God bless you merry, gentlemen! Let nothing you dismay!' Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost."

Opening verse:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this 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

O Come All Ye Faithful

"O Come All Ye Faithful" - sometimes known as the "Portuguese Hymn" because of frequent renditions at the Portuguese Embassy in London - is not only a popular Christmas carol but a rallying cry from a religious minority. "Adeste Fideles", as the hymn is known in Latin, is thought to have been written by a Catholic, John Francis Wade in 1743. Wade, a music teacher, left England in 1745 when the Jacobite Rebellion was fuelling anti-Catholic sentiment, and took refuge at Douai, in France, a haven for British Catholics.

The English-language version, though, did not exist until the 19th century. A vicar called Frederick Oakeley translated verses 1-3 and 6, and another Englishman, William Thomas Brooke, translated the rest. Given the carol's Catholic roots, it is of some irony that Oakeley converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845 - four years after he completed work on it.

O come all ye faithful
Joyful and triumphant
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem
Come and behold Him
Born the King of Angels
O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
O come let us adore Him
Christ the Lord

Once in Royal David's City

Written by Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander, the Irish wife of an Anglican bishop, "Once in Royal David's City" is the carol that is heard by more people than any other. In truth, Christmas hasn't really started until you've listened, along with millions of others, to the treble solo which begins King's College Cambridge's Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, on Christmas Eve.

But the carol's status as a mainstay of Christmas worship would surely have surprised Alexander, who initially published it in her Hymns for Little Children in 1848 - along with that other children's singalong, "All Things Bright and Beautiful". The tune was written by HJ Gauntlett a year later, an English musician who worked with Felix Mendelssohn on his 1846 "Elijah", and who the great German called "one of the most remarkable professional musicians of his age".

Opening verse:

Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

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