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.