Academic journal article The Hymn

O Come, All Ye Children: Christmas Carols in Victorian Children's Hymnbooks

Academic journal article The Hymn

O Come, All Ye Children: Christmas Carols in Victorian Children's Hymnbooks

Article excerpt

The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. ... The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of

"God bless you, merry gentlemen!

May nothing you dismay!"

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.1

Today, Christmas is extolled as a child-centered holiday, a precedent often attributed to the English Victorian Christmas traditions as popularized by Charles Dickens, where young children, like Tiny Tim, exalt the day. Others, like this unnamed boy above, sing carols to appreciative, and unappreciative, adults. As J. A. R. Pimlott wrote, the Victorian "Christmas developed into a preeminently family festival, centred mainly on the children."2 Indeed, the Victorians are credited with inaugurating, or at least greatly amplifying, both the "Cult of the Child," as nineteenth-century English society slowly recognized the special needs of childhood, which reached its peak in the 1880s-90s (Ernest Dowson coined the phrase as the title of an essay in 1889) and the "Cult of Christmas," which gained momentum especially after the 1840s. Indeed, Christmas had been secondary to Eastertide for early Christians and, though given impetus as Christianity spread throughout the medieval and early modern worlds, it fell away in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with Calvinist and Puritan concerns for the associated frivolity. Thus, Christmas was not fully embraced until the Victorian era and then as a secular holiday: Prince Albert imported the "first" Christmas tree from his German homeland (in 1840), Charles Dickens wrote his instantly successful A Christmas Carol, and an enthusiastic audience on both sides of the Atlantic embraced and extended the traditions of "trees, cards, and carols."3

Clearly, both Cults relied heavily upon singing: Christmas carols for Christmas, secular and religious music for children. And Christmas, it would seem, relies on the singing of children. I am interested in this intersection of Victorian Christmas, the Christmas carol, and children, having just published a book examining English childhood and hymnody: British Hymn Books for Children, 1800-1900: Re-Tuning the History of Childhood.4 In this book, I argue that theological, poetic, and social empowerment were given to nineteenth-century British children through the hymns they sang in Sunday Schools, home, church, Whit-Walks, Bands of Hope temperance rallies, even on their deathbeds. Early-nineteenth-century hymns, following the template of Isaac Watts's Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715), are childcentered in their simpler poetry but very Evangelical in their theology, while hymns of mid-century, often resurrected from previous centuries of the hymn or folklore tradition, are clearly "adult-centered" yet chosen in high numbers by hymn editors for children's edification. By the end of the century, hymns in children's hymnbooks revert back to "child-centered" now clearly of the Cult-of-the-Child sentimentality. In this study, I would like to consider another context for child empowerment: the Victorian Christmas carol. The history of Christmas carols for children, as manifested in about 100 English hymn and carol books I researched for the original study, in fact, parallels the basic historical trends I set up in the book.

What defines a carol needs a brief discussion, however, given the inconsistency among scholars. The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music defines carol as "a traditional song for the celebration of Christmas" though not originally "associated with Christmas"5 which, likewise, does not rule out secular songs. …

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