This article originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle volume 13, issue 3 (Autumn 2012)
Carol singing is regarded as one of the most widespread of the winter village traditions, along with Mummers' Plays and Wassailing. It reached a height in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in rural areas, with village quires using a distinct collection of 'their' tunes and words; the vestiges of this tradition remain today in a few areas, such as in Yorkshire around the Sheffield area, and also in a few places in the South West. The Exmoor area of
Somerset and Devon, Padstow in Cornwall, Odcombe in south Somerset, and Durweston in Dorset all have their locally remembered repertoire, sung on a variety of dates during the advent season, or on Christmas Eve itself.
Although these carols are regarded as 'local', a fair number of the tunes originated in a different area altogether. Manuscripts from Dorset contain settings from the composer Joseph Key, of Nuneaton, as well as Thomas Shoel of Montacute, Somerset. The quire
at Beaminster Church in Dorset sang the Christmas Anthem, based on Isaac Watts' hymn 'Shepherds rejoice, lift up your eyes' published by William Holmes, of Ideford, Devon, according to a handbill preserved in Beaminster Museum. In Devon a singer at Otterton noted a carol by Mr Tuff, of Charmouth in Dorset in his book, and the Ashburton quire chose an anthem by William Matthews, of Nottingham. The melody of a carol collected by the folk-song collector George Gardiner in Southampton from George Blake in 1906 was first
published by an American composer in 1782, and is also recorded in a collection of carols
from Stratton in Cornwall.
The mainstay of Christmas worship for Christmas Day itself in the parish church would have been a psalm of thanksgiving, an Anthem taken from Luke's gospel telling the
Christmas story, and the only 'Christmas hymn' available to the worshippers in Tate and Brady's New Version of the Psalms (1696), 'While shepherds watched their flocks by night', which, being directly from the Scriptures, was authorised for use in church services. This led to a large number of different tunes being recorded from village manuscripts for this particular piece; many publishers of psalmody would offer a setting of the text with an
appropriate tune, or, if this was not liked, the quire could choose any tune of the correct metre to use. Non-conformist worshippers had a slightly larger selection of texts,
choosing from Wesley 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing', for example, or Isaac Watts' paraphrase of Psalm 98 'Joy to the World', both of which are still popular today.
The majority of carols found in manuscript books would have been sung away from the church or chapel, when, late on Christmas Eve, the quire would 'go the rounds' of the village to greet each household and farm. A lot of carols started with the words 'Awake! Arise!' or similar, and used boisterous, joyful settings more akin to a dance tune. The texts of these
carols can sometimes be traced in publications such as newspapers, monthly magazines etc. but many were probably locally written, or compiled around a couple of wellknown
verses, with others added by the singers themselves, to their taste! Thomas Hardy describes in Under the Greenwood Tree the progress of the quire and band around the village and names the carols they sang, and to whom. A favourable reception is eventually
received at the School House by Fancy Day, the young schoolmistress, and they are turned away by Farmer Shiner, who angrily shouts at them from his window to “Shut up! … a fellow wi' a headache enough to split likes a quiet night.”
The carol-singers of today are more likely to be found in the comfort of a local pub, a church carol service, or in the draughty entrance to a supermarket, or in the shopping mall. Their choice of material may be very different, but they have their favourites too, reflecting modern music and more secular concerns. Encourage them when you see them – they are keeping alive a tradition much altered, but with a fascinating history.