Welcome to our blog, offering historical insights to the 17th- and 18th-century history shared at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
‘Hark how all the Welkin rings’: Colonial Christmas Carols
Posted on December 16, 2014, by
HARK how all the Welkin rings Glory to the King of Kings, Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild, GOD and Sinners reconcil’d!
So goes the first verse of what we now know as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” written by Charles Wesley and published in John and Charles Wesley’s Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). Is this something that the victorious American soldiers (or the British who had surrendered) might have sung a little over two months after the siege of Yorktown in 1781? Or something they remembered fondly from their Christmases before the war? Perhaps, but if they did, it was not something that people would recognize today.
Wesley’s familiar hymn was written to fit an existing tune – Wesley envisioned singing it to the same tune as the hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” As was common through much of history, song lyrics were written to fit existing tunes. The familiar melody that people sing today for “Hark!” wasn’t written for Wesley’s hymn until 1855. While “how all the Welkin rings” changed to “the Herald Angels sing” in 1754 (“welkin” was an antiquated term for “heavens” even before 1739), it was not until more than a century after the words were written that William H. Cummings adapted a melody from Felix Mendelssohn to give us the version we sing today.
Carol singing was certainly a Christmas holiday fixture in England and America well before the 18th century. Christmas in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was largely celebrated by adults, and the festivities often involved role reversal and mocking authority as well as copious amounts of food, alcohol, revelry and wantonness. Puritans disapproved of celebrating Christmas. There was no biblical justification for celebrating it on December 25, it was rife with pagan ritual, and many celebrants were awash in sin for the twelve days of Christmas. As 16th-century bishop Hugh Latimeer noted, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.” And they were singing while they were sinning.
Puritans outlawed Christmas in the middle of the 17th century. After the Restoration, traditional Christmas practices returned, typified by entertaining, decorating, dancing, feasting, weddings and singing, but at a lesser scale and without the misrule of previous years. Through the 18th century it was a more subdued holiday than in the days before the Commonwealth, but music remained popular. Practices varied between England and America and between the north and south, but the singing of Psalms in Anglican churches and the singing of Christmas hymns and carols outside of church was the norm. Dances and balls were popular as well, so many of the tunes heard most often at Christmas were not specific to the season, although they certainly were central to the holiday festivities.
Some popular hymns for Christmas from the 18th century include Nahum Tate’s “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” (1700), Isaac Watts’ “Joy to the World” (1719), and Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” as noted above. “Joy to the World,” like “Hark!” however, was not associated with the tune we sing today. The tune for “Joy to the World” was arranged in 1839 by Lowell Mason. And it was in the 19th century that many other familiar carols were written, either with new tunes as in the case of songs like “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” or to fit older traditional tunes, as in the cases of “What Child is This,” which reached back to the popular Elizabethan tune for “Greensleeves” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” written to fit a 16th-century French dance tune.
Certain traditional carols survived through the 18th century, however, and were collected by folklorists in the next century as they worked to preserve older musical traditions. Some popular songs collected in the 19th and early 20th centuries with roots that reach back further include “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The First Noel,” “The Cherry Tree Carol,” and “The Gloucestershire Wassail.” How old these songs (in these forms) really are is impossible to say, but songs on similar themes were published well before the English settled at Jamestown – ancestor songs about holly, ivy, “nowell,” and wassailing. These or variations of these songs may have been shared in 18th-century parlors around the time of the American Revolution.
So while music was central to 18th-century Christmases, few of the songs would have sounded familiar to modern ears, and much of the music would have taken the form of dance tunes, popular early hymns, and the singing of Psalms in church. Yet the seeds were in place for the 19th-century resurgence in the popularity of Christmas and the ensuing explosion of carols and carol singing.
Early on the morning of December 9, 1775, eight months after Lexington and Concord, six months after Bunker Hill and seven months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, one of the earliest, smallest, shortest, least known yet most important actions of the American Revolution took place in Virginia within the present-day city of Chesapeake.
Known as the Battle of Great Bridge, less
A silver beaver effigy, a popular symbol in the Indian trade in the 18th century. Artifacts pictured in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.
Trade—the exchange of something for something else—was an important part of Anglo-Indian relations from the earliest days of European settlement in the New World. The Jamestown colonists traded glass beads and copper to the Powhatan Indians in exchan
General Anthony Wayne was one of the great American heroes of the Revolution. Famed for his aggressive style of fighting, he came to be called “Mad” Anthony. In what probably is the most famous incident of his career, he stormed and overran the British fortifications at Stony Point, New York, personally leading a bayonets-only attack. After the Revolution ended he served his country again during t
Military Slang of the Revolutionary War Era
Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.
There is nothing new about military slang. Soldiers, like other groups of people who have interests and associations that are not shared by society as a whole, develop their own special terminology. Here are some examples of American and British military slang that date to the period of the American Revolution.
Made in America
At the same time Americans were securing their political freedom from Britain, they also were securing their economic freedom. Britain wanted America to produce agricultural products like tobacco and buy almost everything else from the mother country. American craftsmen challenged this fundamental economic policy of the British empire, producing goods of all sorts that competed w
The Blue-Backed Speller – Forgotten Intellectual Legacy of the American Revolution
As the Revolutionary War was ending in 1783, a former soldier in that conflict named Noah Webster published a book that was to have an enormous influence on American culture. This was not Webster’s famous dictionary, which didn’t arrive on the scene until 1828. The book in question is the first volume of A Grammati
American-Made Light Artillery in the Revolution
We have poured five swivels to-day all good and cast four Guns 6 pounders this week which I shall have Bored next week. John Reveley, manager of the Westham Foundry near Richmond, Virginia, 1780
Yorktown Victory Center historical interpreters fire a 6-pounder battalion gun.
During the Revolution both sides made extensive use of artillery. At the beg
Espionage and the Culper Ring
For viewers of television’s new Revolutionary War espionage series TURN, the adventures of Anna Strong, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and Benjamin Tallmadge are intriguing and entertaining. The focus of TURN is the Culper spy ring that operated throughout most of the war. Who were the real people who inspired the characters?
In 1778 British commander General Howe
WHAT WAS THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION?
The First Continental Congress, held in Philadelphia in 1774, set the American colonies on a path of confrontation with the British government that led almost inevitably to the outbreak of war less than a year later. This printing of “Extracts From The Votes and Proceedings of the American Continental Congress, …” will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museu
Acquired for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown exhibition galleries, which opened in late 2016, the portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was on temporary exhibit at the Yorktown Victory Center June 14 through August 3, 2014.
From almost the moment he touched ground in London, Diallo won the respect of the leading lights of advanced learning in England and ultimately entered the annals of his
There are some slogans associated with the American Revolution that are powerfully evocative even today. Phrases like “All men are created equal,” “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” and “Don’t tread on me” are part of our national heritage, and they are well known and easily understood by present-day Americans. Some other slogans of the Revolution, however, don’t have the same resonance in the
When the Wild West came to Boston
A circa 1780 depiction of an American rifleman, an example of some of the images created in England to satisfy British curiosity about American soldiers and the war in America. From the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.
In the days and weeks following the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the British forces in Boston found themselves under si
From Victory to Defeat – Admiral Francois de Grasse and the Battle of the Saintes – April 12, 1782 “Lord Rodney’s flagship ‘Formidable’ breaking through the French line at the battle of the Saintes, 12th April 1782,” painted between 1784 and 1787 by Lieutenant William Elliott of the Royal Navy, will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening in late 2016.
In early S
Phillis Wheatley is depicted in the frontispiece of the book, “Poems on Various Subjects,” published in 1773. A first edition of the book is exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
Phillis Wheatley is depicted in the frontispiece of the book, “Poems on Various Subjects,” published in 1773. A first edition of the book will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum
Document Box Commemorates Stamp Act Repeal A leather-covered document box with gilded text, “Stamp Act Rep’d, March 18, 1766,” will be exhibited at the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
A leather-covered document box, embossed with the gilded text “Stamp Act Rep’d / March 18, 1766” will be exhibited at the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. The box, pro
Mercy Otis Warren, Historian of the Revolution
Mercy Otis Warren, from The Illustrated American Biography, vol. 3, 1855.
In a time when politics and war were considered the province of men, Mercy Otis Warren provided powerful arguments for the Patriot cause, stoking the fires of revolution several years before Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Born in 1728 in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, to James an
James Forten’s Decision Portrait of James Forten
James Forten was a free African American at the time of the American Revolution who faced an interesting choice at one point in the war. He was born to free parents in 1766, and attended a Quaker school for free black children for two years of his childhood, while also working to help support his family. Forten was 14 years old when he joined the c
James Armistead Lafayette – Hero and Spy This 1780s engraving in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection depicts the Marquis de Lafayette holding a sheathed sword and pointing at Yorktown. James Armistead, a spy for the American cause, may be the inspiration for the figure at the right.
James Armistead was an enslaved African American in New Kent County, Virginia, when British forces invaded
Frisia Leads the Way in Recognizing U.S. Independence
Soon after the American Revolution began, the Continental Congress recognized that it was imperative to establish diplomatic relations with the nations of Europe, and over the course of the war Congress sent envoys to every major European power. The results of these diplomatic missions were mixed at best. France was American diplomacy’s big suc
Mary Katherine Goddard – An American Printing Pioneer
Early copies of the Declaration of Independence, like this July 1776 broadside in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection, were printed without names.
The Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, but it would take seven months for the signers’ names to be officially acknowledged. Early copies of