Search This Blog

Monday, November 30, 2020

The First Unconventional Christmas Carol Service

The First Unconventional Christmas Carol Service

C. A. Asbrey

We often think that a Christmas Eve carol service is traditional, even if we think about it at all. However, it's one of the many things brought to us in the Victorian era as they reinvented the way we celebrate Christmas from the lengthy festival, to one which fitted in more with the needs of the industrial revolution. December and January gave rural workers much-needed down time in which they caught up on repairs during the shorter periods of daylight. This allowed time to visit, celebrate, and unwind after a busy year. Factory workers were not dependent on daylight or seasonal vagaries. They could work every day, so the availability of people able to celebrate the long holiday diminished. The Georgian Christmas extended from St. Nicholas Day on December 6th to twelfth night on January 6th. Victorian society did not have time for such lengthy festivities. Many workplaces didn't even give workers a day off until compelled to by law in 1833 in the UK, and 1870 in the USA. 

The festive season was compressed into Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (for people in the UK). Boxing Day was the day in which many people flocked to see sports, boxing, and races. The rich traditionally ate cold-cuts to allow the servants, who had pandered to their every need the day before, a day to visit their own families. They were also given a Christmas Box, which despite the name, didn't actually consist of a box. It was a gift which could contain things like money, or fabric to make themselves a new outfit for work. Especially traditional, was the practice of giving the postman money or alcohol as a Christmas box. It was expected and taken as a given. An attempt to crack down on Christmas boxes in 1852 by the then Postmaster General, Lord Hardwicke, caused uproar throughout the UK. Documentation and petitions showed that on a good route the Christmas box could add as much as £8,000 (£641,000 today)to the postman's earnings. To put that into perspective a labourer would have to work for 109 years to mass such a sum. In regional cities it was more in the region of £425 (£34,000 today). As you can see the postal workers were not about to give that up without a fight. There were even threats to assassinate the postmaster general. But he held firm and they were forbidden - until the next year when Lord Hardwick was replaced. The new postmaster general reinstated the tradition in 1853.        

The new lifestyle, meant that Christmas Eve was often a drunken affair. People could take advantage of a day off to overindulge. Church services were largely held on Christmas Day itself. Carols weren't originally dedicated to Christmas music. They were the songs which accompanied folk dances, very secular, often indecorous, and were normally sung in the pub. The word originally meant to 'dance in a ring.' It was a man called Edward Whitebenson who decided that he was tired of drunk people singing carols in the pubs on Christmas Eve, and resolved to tempt the revellers into church instead. At least that's the famous story. He was the Bishop of Truro, Cornwall, and in a diocese so new that the cathedral hadn't even been built yet. He held his services in a shed. It took an unconventional man to reach out to the public houses. It echoed the midnight vigils long held in many churches over Christmas, but it seems Whitebenson wanted to make it more like the celebrations spilling out from the pubs. That meant mopping up the inebriated celebrants wobbling from the pubs at closing time. 

While his motivations for creating the new service haven't been written down, a great deal more has been put on paper by many members of his family. And what a story they tell. Whitebenson later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, but his family was steeped in the kind of activities, and scandals, for which monied Victorian upper classes became famous. His wife, Mary, nicknamed Ben, catalogued her affairs with thirty-nine women, or 'swarmings' as she called them. Once her husband died she moved in with, Lucy Tait, the daughter of the man who had been Archbishop of Canterbury before her husband.      

Edward Whitebenson

He had married his wife when she was only eighteen, and they had accomplished, and literary, children. Martin died at the age of 17 of meningitis, and Hugh left his father's church to become a Catholic priest. Their son, Arthur wrote the words to Elgar's 'Land of Hope and Glory'. He famously declared that the nearest he ever came to having a relationship with a woman was a kiss on the forehead. Fred Benson was a figure skater, and was the E.F. Benson who penned the Map and Lucia series of novels. Fred shared a villa in Capri with the famous pianist, John Ellingham Brooks.  

Their daughter, Margaret was an Egyptologist and an early proponent of Gay Rights. Her partner was Janet Gourley, but her mother's affair with Lucy Tait made Margaret so jealous she went for her mother with a carving knife. Their other daughter, Nellie, took up with the composer Ethel Smyth. The complication there was that Ethel had been Mary Whitebenson's lover. Mary is said to have worked hard to accept the relationship with good grace.   

So you can probably see that such an unconventional family life would lead a man like Edward Whitebenson to make an unconventional decision. Bringing the rowdy songs of the bar room into a church had previously been unthinkable in a world where appearances were everything - no matter what went on behind the scenes. Drunken pub songs had no place in church, to many upright Victorian minds at the time. But what a success it was!

Arthur Benson wrote, "My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve - nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church." It wasn't long before other churches followed suit, and people loved the new service.

The service took place on Christmas Eve in 1880, but what about the songs themselves? They all have various versions, some local, some very secular, others, more religious. The very old ones have various lyrics which have a hidden meaning. Some were a political satire, the meaning largely lost to us, but a way for the poor people to poke fun at the local gentry without getting into too much trouble. Others had pagan fertility roots, and the rest were just plain bawdy. 

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas wasn't a king, and wasn't even called Wenceslas (unless you speak old Czech). He was called Vaclav, a duke, known for doing good and charitable deeds, but he didn't walk the snow at night looking for poor people to help. His mother had been a pagan, and his grandmother a Christian. In a typical power-struggle of the time, his mother had his paternal grandmother assassinated - strangled with her veil. When he turned eighteen he took control of his lands, banished his mother and established a system of law and order, defended the area from attack, and generally became a very popular leader. Typical of the Game-of-Thrones-style of government which prevailed in the tenth century, Vaclav's brother Boleslav had Vaclav killed. The words we know today were written by Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda in 1847, and he had his own reasons for altering the story. He was trying to prove that the Czech language and culture was older, and more homogenized than it actually was, to legitimise Czech nationalism. He created many false manuscripts to that end. The work found its way to England where JM Neale put the translated words to the tune of a 13th century spring carol  from Sweden, 'Tempus Adest Floridum' ('It is time for flowering').     

The Twelve Days of Christmas

There is an apocryphal tale relating to this song that the individual gifts all relate to various Catholic symbols, and that the song was a way of allowing the persecuted Catholics to follow their faith in code. There is absolutely no evidence that this is true. Not only is the symbolism not specific to Catholicism, but there are versions of the song going back to at least 1625. The oldest version is titled both 'The New Dial', and 'In those Twelve Days'. The twelve days started on Christmas day, and ended on Epiphany on January 6th.

It is an example of a very old kind of folk music called a cumulative song, which are sung in groups as a kind of game, adding lines for the next in turn to remember as a kind of challenge. These are an extremely old form of entertainment, and the oldest recorded example of a children's song is a cumulative song, 'Chad Gadya'. It's a Sephardic Jewish Passover song which has versions in Aramaic, the language in use by Jews at the time of Jesus Christ. You may be interested to know that over the twelve days of Christmas a staggering total of 364 gifts are delivered by the singer's true love.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Look at any hymn book and your see that the lyrics were written by Wesley, tune by Mendelssohn. Except they weren't. Wesley was said to be most displeased when George Whitefield changed the words to the carol he penned a full twenty years earlier, and was quoted as saying he didn't want to be, "accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men." Wesley was said to have been inspired by the sound of church bells as he walked to church on Christmas day. That's what the 'welken rings' he referred to in the first line mean in the original lyrics.

"Hark how all the welkin rings

Glory to the King of Kings

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled." 

Mendelssohn never even heard the hymn. The music he wrote in 1850 was to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the invention of Gutenberg's printing press. As the anniversary passed, people stopped singing the song. Mendelssohn wrote that he didn't mind if new words were put to the song as long as they weren't religious. He was already dead by the time someone matched Whitefield's altered lyrics to the song the composer asked to be kept secular. Next time you sing it, you may want to remember that you are going against the express wishes of the lyricist and composer. 

Deck the Halls

This is a prime example of the Christmas Carol originally being an bawdy folk song. The actual song is very old, the tune dating back to at least the sixteenth century, and is known in Welsh as Nos Galen (not to be confused with the Nos Galen Road Race, which commemorates the legendary Welsh athlete Guto Nyth Brân[1700-1730]). 

The original lyrics, when translated from the  original Welsh, celebrate fleshly desire rather than religious fervour.

"Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la 
Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la
Oh! how blessed are the blisses, Words of love, and mutual kisses, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la" 

Scottish musician, Thomas Oliphant, took the ballad and sanitised it for prim Victorian sensibilities. It's important to note that the Welsh weren't any more bawdy than anyone else in the British Isles. Other traditional songs have similar indecorous roots, tying Christmas right in with it's Saturnalian and Yule roots, alongside the Pagan Celtic fertility symbols. The Romans would exchange boughs of holy and ivy, and the Anglo-Saxons lit a Yule log, and left it to burn itself out for days. The type of wood had sacred significance too. In England it was Oak (very scared to the Druids, and related to strength and wisdom), in Scotland it was the sacred Birch (reputed to ward off evil), and in France it was cherry (immortality, and related to love and future fertility, and scattered with wine before being set alight). It was considered bad luck if it went out early. It's important to remember that people didn't want to give up what was sacred to them easily when Christianity came to Britain. Many ancient churches are built directly on top of the ancient sacred groves, and the existing symbols were co-opted with adjusted significance. When you are singing "The Holy and the Ivy" the original meaning was to celebrate the magical properties of evergreens. It's an act of sympathetic magic to invite back the fertility of spring. The thorns of the holly were a phallic symbol of male fertility, while the ivy represented the female.

Mistletoe was sacred to the druids, as well as having significance to the Romans and Greeks, but it's the northern Europeans who resolutely held onto it in their winter celebrations. It's semen-like sap coming from crushed berries, along with the almost-miraculous way it self-seeded on already-sacred trees, means isn't hard to connect to fertility rites. And from there, it's not too big a leap to the kissing traditions which come from many countries.

It's worth noting that the American mistletoe is different to the European version, and that the European plant was used medicinally in ancient times, and still is. Those druids may have been on to something. It's now used to treat seizures, to lower the heart rate, and to treat certain types of cancer. It is a poisonous plant, so unless it's prescribed for you, please only use it for a traditional smooch as you enjoy your Christmas celebrations.

Merry Christmas and happy everything - no matter what you celebrate!


“She hasn’t got the combination to the safe,” said the manager. “You can scare her as much as you want. We all know you’re not gonna use that gun on us.”

Rebecca’s breath halted as she felt a careless arm drape around her shoulder.

“I don’t need a gun to hurt someone. Give us the combination.” The manager remained mute and turned his face away. “Your call, sir.” He pulled Rebecca around to face him as she gasped in alarm. “Just remember who you’ve got to thank for this, ma’am.”

He pointed over at the manager, who refused to meet her eyes. “That man right there.”

“Anything that happens to her is down to you. Not me,” said the manager.

Rebecca felt herself dragged from the room by one arm. She was pulled into the office next door and pushed against the wall. The man walked over and pulled down the blind before returning to her. Her breath came in ragged pants of fear. “Please, no. Don’t.”

He leaned on the wall, a hand on either side of her head, and pressed his face close. “You were gonna hold this place up. Are you some kind of idiot?”

She blinked in confusion. “Huh?”

The man pulled down his mask, revealing the face of the fair man who had walked into her office looking for Fernsby. “Don’t lie to me, honey. You had the same idea as we did— look at Meagher’s bank account to see where he gets his money. We’ve watched you march up and down outside this place all day, like you were on sentry duty, while you built up your courage. You even got in the way of us doin’ it. What the hell is goin’ on in your head? How dumb can a woman get?”

“You? Here?” She couldn’t quite decide whether to stop being scared or not.

“Yeah. Me.” He indicated with his head. “Now, Nat’s in there, and he needs the combination of the safe. It’s too new and sophisticated for him to crack the combination. You and me need to put on a bit of a show to make sure the manager gives it up.”

“You’re not robbing the bank?”

Jake huffed in irritation. “Try to keep up, Becky. I need you to scream for help so the manager gives Nat the combination to the vault. We want Meagher’s records too.”

She shook her head. “Me? I can’t scream.”

“What do you mean you can’t scream? All women can scream.”

“I can’t. I’m just not made that way.”

He frowned. “Look, Becky. If you won’t scream, I’m gonna have to make you. Let’s do this the easy way, huh?”

“Please, help! Noooo.”

Jake frowned. “You call that screamin’? That’s useless.”

“I told you. I can’t.”

Jake flicked up an eyebrow. “Last chance, Becky.”


“Nope.” A gloved hand reached up to her hat as his eyes glittered with mischief. “Don’t say you weren’t warned, sweetheart.” 



  1. What a perfect post to kick off the season! Fascinating history.

  2. You have a wealth of information packed into this article, Christine. I did not know that carolers used to be guys at the pub rather that a church congregation singing with reverence the message of Christmas. I also liked the the history of several Christmas Carols. I had no idea there was no King Wenceslas. I can't help but recall my very first patient when I was in nursing school. He was a physicist working for NASA. On his way back to Houston from Washington, D.C., his car slide off a bridge from black ice. He laid there for hours before help arrived. His neck was broken and he became a quadriplegic. I came in one morning and found him staring at his contracted feet singing a new version of "Good King Wenceslas." It went like this: "Good King Wenceslas looked down at his feets uneven." What a great attitude his patient had that he could find humor in his terrible situation. I will never forget him or that Carol he put his own stamp on.

    Thank you for getting us started into the holiday season, Christine. I hope your Christmas is merry and bright...

    1. Oh, thanks for that lovely story. What a brave man, and such a positive attitude is a lesson for us all. I do hope he continued to get joy from life. Attitude counts for a lot! Merry Christmas, Sarah.

  3. Really interesting, Christine! Thank you so much for sharing. What a wonderful way to start the Christmas season!

    1. Thanks, Lindsay. I really feel like getting into he spirit early this year! Merry Christmas.

  4. This was fascinating. I learned so much. Thank you for kicking of the Christmas season this way

    1. Thanks, Anne. I feel extra Christmassy this year. We need cheering up. Merry Christmas.

  5. What a fascinating read. Thank you! Doris