Tor McIntosh | Freelance writer and photographer

Christmas Carols

Feature on the folk origins of carols for BBC Countryfile magazine

Some of our favourite carols have their roots in country folk songs, as TOR McINTOSH discovers. And this rustic music is enjoying a revival.

As the fire crackles in the corner, the humdrum of chatter from the bar hushes as a stocky, bearded man, one hand cradling a pint of ale, starts to sing in a deep baritone the first verse of While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night to an obscure, upbeat melody. Within minutes, conversations are forgotten and the room reverberates with robust vocals as everyone in the pub joins in with the chorus, “Hail! chime on, chime on, Merry, merry Christmas bells chime on…” This is carol singing, Yorkshire style.

Based on paintings from the Middle Ages that depict people dancing in circles accompanied by musicians, it’s believed that carols originated as songs to accompany medieval circle dances – the word ‘carol’ derives from the Old French word carole, meaning ‘round dance’. Today, it’s pop songs and hackneyed Christmas hymns that follow us around shops during the ever-lengthening Christmas season. But away from these jaded festive tunes, a repertoire of toe-tapping traditional English folk carols have been kept alive for hundreds of years by rural communities and folk musicians.

Influenced by her upbringing in South Yorkshire, contemporary folk musician Kate Rusby has recorded two albums: Sweet Bells (2008) and While Mortals
Sleep (2011), which rejuvenate traditional Yorkshire carols. These include the instantly catchy Here We Come A-Wassailing, which was originally sung door-to-door by carol singers to wish people good health (the Old English phrase waes hail means ‘be in good health’), while the sad Sheffield ballad Poor Old Horse was performed by mummers, one dressed as a horse, as they collected treats (read: alcohol, food and money) for “the poor old horse”.

Read the full article here.

Published in BBC Countryfile, December 2011.