Songs of the Nativity Revisited

A few weekends ago, I was multi-tasking between Christmas cakes and reshelving books, with the Advent Service from St John’s on the radio, when I picked up William Henry Husk’s Songs of the Nativity, the cover of which is one of my favourite designs from back in the day. This concatenation of events was clearly meant to be, so when I next had a moment, I sat down and re-read Husk’s introduction to his work, which is basically a lament for all the Christmas lore, customs and music which it seemed to him (writing in 1864) were passing away.

I have written about Husk (1814–87) a couple of times before (also back in the day). He was a solicitor’s clerk for all his working life, but music was his great love: in 1834, he joined the newly founded Sacred Harmonic Society, and became its librarian in 1852, heroically spending ten years sorting out its music and books, of which he published a catalogue in 1862. As well as Songs of the Nativity, he published An Account of the Musical Celebrations on St Cecilia’s Day in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in 1857, and was a contributor to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Sadly, we don’t know what he looked like.

I hadn’t really thought much before about his view that the singing of carols should be considered a ’departing Christmas custom’ in the 1860s. Interestingly, his belief is that this stems from both metropolitan and provincial printers responding to public demand by offering collections which are not what he thinks of as carols: ‘the taste of their customers rather incline[s] towards hymns, mostly those in use amongst dissenting congregations, than to the genuine Christmas carol’.

A family attempts to sell carol broadsheets in 1847

He speaks approvingly of ‘a certain section of the clergy, anxious for the conservation of old customs’ who have occasionally ‘made attempts to revive a taste for the use of Christmas carols amongst their parishioners’; but ‘unless the free spontaneous wish of the people shall concur to give [carol-singing] vitality, it will soon droop and die’.

It’s not clear if the vicar rounded this group up in 1880

Husk’s hope is that ‘it may not be deemed presumptuous to suppose that the present volume will not be unwelcome’ to the family gatherings which in his own day have replaced the celebrations in the wider community, which he clearly believes were the proper English Christmas tradition from medieval, feudal times until some indeterminate point in the eighteenth century. He quotes a chunk of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion to enforce his point: in feudal times, everyone went round to the lord of the manor’s hospitable house, where brawn, boar’s head, sirloin, goose, plum-porridge and Christmas pie were on the groaning table, and foaming wassail bowls decorated with ribbons were passed around. ‘Then came the merry masquers in, / And carols roar’d with blithesome din.’

The Royal Christmas Tree, brought indoors by Prince Albert

What is so interesting about this is that Husk is writing just three years after the death of Prince Albert, who, along with Charles Dickens (in A Christmas Carol (1843) and the other Christmas books), was supposed to have invented the ‘traditional’ Christmas; whereas in fact they appear to have been domesticating a tradition which was formerly communal and not infrequently riotous, with some fairly obvious pagan elements.

The Coventry Carol, probably the most famous carol which has survived from the period of the Mystery Plays put on by town guilds as a communal celebration, is not in Husk’s collection (though he does print the other well-known lament for Holy Innocents’ Day, William Byrd’s ‘Lulla, la lulla, lulla lullaby / My sweet little baby, what meanest thou to cry?’). According to Husk:

Husk divides his carol collection into two parts: ‘Religious Carols’ and ‘Festive Carols and Songs’, and the second section is notable for the almost complete absence of any Christian references, though there is a great emphasis on the need to feed and help the poor and needy, and great scorn for those who refuse to do so.

The refrains in these carols usually refer to food and/or drink: ‘Plum-pudding, goose, capon, minc’d pies, and roast beef’ is the final line of all fifteen verses of ‘Old Christmas Returned’, a broadside collected by Samuel Pepys and now in Magdalene College, Cambridge. Another carol, published in 1661 (and with a notably Restoration sentiment), urges us in the first verse to ‘Remember Christ that for us died’, but soon moves on to feasting: ‘And, whereas plenty God hath sent / Give frankly to your friends in love: / The bounteous mind is freely bent, / And never will a niggard prove’, and describes an assault on the battlements of the prune-filled Christmas pie in martial terms, ending with a demand for beer, and a blessing on the household of the host.

Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present, whose emphasis is on light, warmth and food

A ‘Christmas Song’ of 1695 summons up ‘Minc’d pies and plum-porridge, / Good ale and strong beer; / With pig, goose, and capon, / The best that can be’, and decorations of ‘holly and ivy, / So green and so gay; / we deck out our houses / As fresh as the day, / With bays and rosemary / And laurel complete’.

The Yule Log being dragged home in 1832

In 1700, ‘Now that the time is come wherein / Our Saviour Christ was born, / The larders full of beef and pork, / The garners full of corn … And never let it thee repent to feast thy needy neighbours’. After all, ‘Good victuals will not harm them. / With mutton, veal, beef, pig, and pork, / Well furnish every board, / Plum-pudding, furmity, and what / Thy stock will then afford. No niggard of the liquor be, / Let it go round the table …’.

The Yorkshire Christmas pie, carried into the dining room in Windsor Castle, 1858

One of the more interesting songs in the ‘Religious Carols’ section is for St Stephen’s Day. Instead of the protomartyr saint being a deacon (or sometimes a bishop) of the Christian church, he is a lackey of King Herod, who while carrying the boar’s head out of the kitchen to serve to his master, saw the star over Bethlehem, threw the boar’s head onto the floor, and addressed the king: ‘I forsake the, king Herod, / And thy works all, / There is a child in Bethlem born, / Is better than we all.’ Herod is unimpressed: ‘That is all so soothe, Stephen, / All so soothe, I wis, / As this capon crow shall, / That lyeth here in my dish.’ Upon which, the plucked and cooked capon crowed ‘Christus natus est’.

The Three Kings visit Herod (St Mark’s Basilica, Venice): no capon in sight yet

Unlike the executioner of St Dorothy, who was converted by the flowers she sent him from Paradise, Herod did not take a lesson from this miracle. Instead, he ordered Stephen to be led out and stoned to death; so this as well as the massacre of the Holy Innocents (among whom, in the Chester Mystery Play, was his own son, sent out to nurse and unrecognised by his soldiers) can be laid to his account. (Another version, ‘King Herod and the Cock‘, has the Magi telling Herod of the baby, with a similar result.)

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents, by Giotto, in the Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua

Talking of the board’s head, Husk gives seven version of this carol, the most familiar of which is the one sung at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and which can be found in Volume 2 (1812) of Thomas Dibdin’s edition of Joseph Ames’s Typographical Antiquities though we do not usually sing the location-specific last verse:

Also at The Queen’s College can be found a version celebrating a boar which attacked a student of the college who was sitting in the forest at Shotover reading Aristotle. The defenceless boy thrust the book down the boar’s throat, choking it to death. These entirely secular verses, replete with classical references, were first printed in 1719, and ‘it will be perceived how much the same carol is altered as it is sung in some places even now from what it was at first’, with which one can only agree.

In comes the boar’s head: a Victorian imagining of a Tudor feast, from
Henry Vizetelly‘s ‘Christmas with the Poets’

Most of the more ancient boar’s head carols have mustard as an essential accompaniment; in the earliest surviving version, from a fifteenth-century manuscript, the boar is followed by ‘The cranes, the herons, the bitterns, by their side / The partridges and the plovers, the woodcocks , and the snipe … Larks in hot show ladies for to pick’, as well as ‘Good drink thereto’, including German and Spanish wines, as well as good brewed ale, furmity, venison, ‘the umbles of the doe’, ‘capons well baked’ and ‘raisins of currants with other spices more’.

Slaughtering boars, from a fourteenth-century version of the Tacuinum sanitatis, the Latin translation of an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise on the maintenance of health
Gutting chickens and cooking their livers, also from the Tacuinum sanitatis

The startling array of meats listed in the carols seems odd, if not positively distasteful these days, though we need to bear in mind that the basic diet of the poor for many centuries was almost meat-free. But the accompanying message, to share what you have with those less fortunate, is of course precisely what Dickens was on about. Husk has a very recent carol, published in a broadside in Devonport, of the sentiment of which he thoroughly approves (as almost certainly would Dickens):

And oh! Remember, gentles gay, / For you who bask in fortune’s ray, / The year is all a holiday – / The poor have only Christmas.


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2 Responses to Songs of the Nativity Revisited

  1. Clare Cambridge says:

    Dear Professor Hedgehog
    You have put a wonderful collection of references, pictures and carols together; many of them and the stories were unknown to me. Loved the picture of the Carol singers who are trying to sell broadsheets! Even the little girl has an untrustworthy look..You know their singing will be dire and they are just peddling these things for gain! Werll done for finding these pictures! The shift of the Christmas celebrations from being held at the home of the Lord of the Manor and therefore altering in their food-content is rather interesting. Perhaps shows that more people had homes with access to private cooking facilities? And so the type of food eaten would be a bit smaller – that which someone in a normal house could store and prepare. Also one cannot help recalling that incredibly dramatic Christmas in Far from the Madding Crowd when Bathsheba decides to fulfill the role of Lady of the Manor and puts on a Christmas feast to reward her loyal servants. Its a while since I read the novel but doesn’t Hardy use the celebrations as a magnificent backdrop to the murderous stand-off between her estranged husband Sergeant Troy and the psychotic Farmer Boldwood? Why one wonders did Hardy choose too set this denouement on Christmas Eve? He often does have a faintly pagan element – linking human mortality with the natural world. Maybe that’s it. Thank you so much Professor Hedgehog – I also love the pure and elegant picture of Queen Victoria’s domestic Christmas. Really an ideal for her subjects to aspire too (and so false. As one historian wrote (sic) “Victoria might have been an indulgent mother to her subjects but she certainly wasn’t to her children.”.


    • Thanks, Clare! I think you’re right that the arrival of ovens in ordinary domestic kitchens must have made a lot of difference to a community. And Hardy definitely had a thing about Christmas, and Christmas Eve in particular, not just in the novels, but also of course in the poems. I was going to mention him, but the blog was already quite long enough…


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