• Holidays

    The Sound of Colonial Christmas

    That magical time of year is upon us, when we are frantically trying to get everything done for the holidays. Added bonus: all things 2020 are making the season even more difficult! So let’s take a much needed break and chill out with some traditional Christmas music.

    A forgotten spelling of Noël

    While our modern Christmas often looks quite different from our ancestors’ holiday season, we do have one thing in common: Christmas Carols. Music, like food, is a way we can reach across the ages and experience what people in the past experienced. Through our shared musical history, we can connect in a very visceral way.

    For today, we’re focusing on carols found in the colonies that have English/British origins. This represents the largest population group in the colonies and seems to have the greatest proportion of carols we still enjoy today. Of course, some colonists weren’t so OK with the singing and dancing–conservative Puritan New England was not down with the revelry! But most colonists incorporated music into their daily lives, just as we do now.

    I can’t imagine why the Puritans weren’t on board…

    For these performances, I chose versions that would approximate what the colonists would have heard. No giant choirs singing at Westminster or modern pop interpretations. There would have been improvisation but no jazz, blues, or rock influences since those genres didn’t exist yet.

    Without further ado, grab some eggnog, mulled cider, or hot chocolate and check these out these carols!

    The First Noël

    “The First Noël” has a bit of a fuzzy history. The song is probably Cornish from the Early Modern period (~15-16th centuries). And it is possibly based on an even older musical style from medieval France. Side note: I’m a huge music geek. We won’t discuss the rabbit holes that happened during this research! 🤐

    I like this performance because it is small and intimate. It would have been easy for colonials to perform in this style at home or in church. The guitar, in several historic forms, was available at the time, as were a number of other string instruments.

    God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

    One of the oldest known carols, going back to at least the 16th century, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is also one of the most enduring. Questions of the language use and the tricky rhyme in the third verse aside, this would have been a common song among the English-language colonists.

    Here again we have a smaller, intimate performance with instruments available in the period: voice, violin, and guitar. Having Joshua Bell on violin and Alison Krauss on vocals is an added bonus!

    The Coventry Carol

    Another oldie but goody, “Coventry Carol” is also from the 16th century or earlier. This time, we’re going with a small choral group (renowned artists The Sixteen) to represent the scale of colonial churches. We didn’t have giant cathedrals like Westminster or York in the colonies. Instead, the churches were built for our smaller communities.

    Check out those historic harmonies! Note that the sheet music shown is a different version from what is being performed. Browse the comments for discussion on the technical aspects, if you are interested.

    I Saw Three Ships

    This is a fun way to end our quick exploration. Here we have a great example of the improvisation that would have been popular in the time period. Printed music was expensive and a lot of musicians would have learned by ear and then creatively filled in the gaps.

    The song itself is probably from the 17th century (or, like the others, possibly earlier). “I Saw Three Ships” is one of my favorites to play because of the jaunty tune. Lindsey Stirling (sitting still!) and crew add a Gaelic feel to it, which would have been common in some regions of the colonies.

    I hope you found these entertaining and just what you needed this week. 🙂

    Which of these did you like most? In general, what is your favorite holiday song? Is it a traditional tune like these or are you more of a Santa Baby fan? Does your family have any “must be played” holiday music? Let me know below!

    Personally, Ukrainian Carol/Carol of the Bells is my favorite, with God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen a close second. I love those minor keys! However, no Christmas is complete without Elvis!

    Have a happy and safe Holiday Season! 😀

    M


    Image Credits

    I Saw Three Ships Sheet Music: From William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern Published London: Richard Beckley, 1833. Available on HymnsAndCarolsOfChristmas.com.
    First Nowell Sheet Music: From William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern Published London: Richard Beckley, 1833. Available on HymnsAndCarolsOfChristmas.com.
    Country Christmas: Pinterest: Colonial Williamsburg Education board.