I like to guess what culture and what time period these Christmas songs come from. It’s like an old-fashioned fair booth of “guess my age” or “guess my weight,” but with weightless Christmas songs instead. So with that, guess when today’s carol was written. From the looks of the YouTube cover photo the minor key of the carol, and the archaic-sounding lyrics (such as “holpen,” the Middle English form of “help”), you might understandably peg it as hailing from the middle ages.
Nope. It was written around 1860 by William Morris and sung to an old French tune which Marin Marais used for a dance in his 1706 opera Alcyone. A few things about these characters: William Morris was a key figure in the British Arts and Crafts movement that sought to generate and maintain awareness of traditional British textiles. Marin Marais was a court composer at Versailles and did very well, but of course he lived decades before William Morris was born. Instead, Edmund Sedding, a British architect, learned of the tune from the then-organist at the Chartres Cathedral, and published the song in Sedding’s 1860 collection of carols, Nine Antient and Goodly Carols for the Merry Tide of Christmas. Except it wasn’t ancient at all; it was a hot new release. Tricksy. What does it have to do with a film? Not much that I can tell; I’ve just loved it for a long time and decided I wanted to finally include it in a countdown.
The carol is from the first-person perspective of someone poor, announcing the birth of Jesus to his presumably poor friends. I picture someone finding out the extraordinary news that Jesus is born, running to a full and friendly pub, bursting through the door, and announcing the opening lines:
Masters in this Hall,
Hear ye news to-day
Brought from over sea,
And ever I you pray
The carol continues in a rousing fashion with others joining in. The chorus, which is repeated after each verse anglicizes the French “noël” meaning “nativity” to “nowell” and ends with the lines:
- God to-day hath poor folk raised
- And cast a-down the proud.
Get together with your masters (friends) in a hall if you can this season, and celebrate Christmas with all the gusto you’ve got.