Here are some odd and ends of Christmas carol trivia:
- The first line of a best-known carol originally read, “Hark, how all the welkin rings! Glory to the King of kings.” (So what’s a welkin?)
- The words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” can be traced back to seven prayers, the Advent antiphons, that were in use during the early 500s. (That’s long ago? But what’s a welkin?)
- The tune to “O Christmas Tree” has popped up in all kinds of unlikely places, including the stadium of the Manchester United football team and the state capitol of Maryland. (Interesting, but I still want to know what a welkin is!)
- The words to “O Holy Night” were revised and revised and revised again in a way that parallels the course of theology during the 19th century. (Yes, but…)
It’s no surprise that there are plenty of books providing background to Christmas carols. For almost two months every year, carols are everywhere! You hear them when you shop at MarketFair. You can listen to them non-stop on Pandora, Spotify, and Sirius XM. During Advent, you sing them on Sunday mornings. So it’s easy to take these familiar songs for granted. But in terms of their origins, carols are hardly ordinary. And that’s why there is always a market for books that tell their backstories well.
Andrew Gant teaches at Oxford and is a renowned British composer. Not surprisingly, his contribution to the literature about carols, The Carols of Christmas, includes stories about 21 well-known tunes as well as their words. It makes for an enlightening read, especially since the music for some carols involve so many different people and countries and classes. While reading the book, I developed a deeper understanding of the extent to which carols are a gift of the whole church to the whole church. As a result, the book is well worth the read.
Oh, and as for “welkin,” it’s an archaic term that means the sky or the heavens.
Learn more about the book:
- Listen to “Away in the Manger” and other songs included in the book, sung by the Vox Turturis chamber choir and conducted by the author (Youtube)