Christmas Carols Jane Austen Might Have Known, by Jann Rowland

Christmas Carols Jane Austen Might Have Known, by Jann Rowland

As anyone who knows me will attest, I love music, and I also love Christmas. But while do enjoy Santa Claus and Jingle Bells, I am more partial to sacred music which has, at its heart, a message of the birth of the Savior of the world.

Thus, for my post this month, I thought it might be an interesting idea to talk about Christmas carols, but with a twist. Singing Christmas carols and wassailing was not a custom of Regency times; most of the information I uncovered suggests it was more prominent in Victorian times. But our favorite Regency author still would have been familiar with Christmas carols, and would have sung them with her family, at church, and during events of the neighborhood in which she lived.

If I was creating a comprehensive list of favorite Christmas carols, I would include many that do not fit in this list. O Holy Night is a personal favorite, but it was not written until the 1850s. The Huron Carol is beloved in Canada and it is certainly old enough, dating back to the 17th century in the original Native language. But it was not translated into English until the 20th century, and I doubt it made its way across the ocean to the old world until fairly recently. I love I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, the hopeless “And in despair I bowed my head, ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said” to the transcendent “Till, ringing, singing, on its way, the world revolved from night to day, A Song, a chime, a chant sublime, Of peace on earth, good will to men!” which is one of my favorite lines in any Christmas song. But again, it was composed much later than the Regency period. Even Silent Night, which most historians think was written in 1818, was a year after Jane Austen’s death, and was written in Germany, not to be translated until later.

Still, there are lots of good hymns to choose from. Here then, in ascending order, are my five favorite hymns that Jane Austen likely would have known and sung:

5. While Shepherd Watched Their Flocks By Night

This hymn, which tells the story of the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, has long been a stable of sacred Christmas carols. The original version dates to the 18th century, and in researching it, I was surprised how many tunes it has been set to. The most popular and well-known version is the Winchester version, which Jane Austen would have known, but personally, I like the one sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which is known as the Yorkshire Carol version, which you can find if you search YouTube.

4. Greensleeves

Greensleeves is the first entrant which boasts a minor key, which I have always loved. Minor keys often convey a slightly mournful tone, and are often beautifully haunting melodies. Greensleeves has existed as a ballad since the late 16th century, and the lyrics have been adapted to Christmas, New Years, and many other occasions. Any of my readers who have read My Brother’s Keeper will note that I used the song in that story. Since then, the immensely popular What Child is This? was written to the same tune, and now it is almost impossible to find a recording of any other version. No Christmas list can be complete without Greensleeves somewhere on it. I have included a link to the Mannheim Steamroller version which, though instrumental, is a beautiful rendition.

3. Adeste Fideles

Today this hymn is better known as O Come, All Ye Faithful, and though the English version of the hymn was not written until the mid-19th century, the earliest surviving versions of the Latin version bear the signature of John Francis Wade, who was an English hymnist. Other authors have been suggested and the true origin is uncertain, but it would certainly have been known in Jane Austen’s time. A hymn with beautiful harmony, there is nothing quite like an entire congregation standing and belting out this traditional favorite. This version, by Bing Crosby, is also an especial favorite.

2. Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

I had a difficult time choosing between putting this one or the next at number one, and either would be marvelous choice. On any given day, I might change the order. With Bring a Torch we get into hymns that are a little more obscure today. It can be difficult to find a version of it on most Christmas collections as it has largely fallen from our common repertoire of hymns. But the beautiful music, exhorting the maidens to visit the babe Jesus’s stall is a true masterpiece of Christmas music, and of music in general. This hymn originated in France in the 16th century, was translated into English in the 18th. I like to imagine Jane Austen, sitting around the pianoforte with her brothers and sisters, and singing this beautiful hymn on Christmas Eve. This is a version by Robert Shaw Chorale, though the instrumental version by Mannheim Steamroller is also gorgeous.

1. Coventry Carol

This last hymn might be a bit of a stretch, though it is still possible that Jane Austen might have heard it. The Coventry Carol dates to the 16th century, and was performed in the city of Coventry as part of a Christmas play entitled The Pageant of the Shearmen and the Tailors, which was a depiction of the Christmas story from the gospel of Matthew. The song itself refers to the massacre of the innocents, ordered by king Herod to try and kill the Christ child when his trickery with the wise men did not work. A haunting, minor key melody, the words evoke the despair of the mothers of Bethlehem, and it depicts Mary singing her lament to the Christ child before she and Joseph were told to flee to Egypt. The harmony in this hymn is sublime, and it is almost impossible to listen to without emotion. It is usually sung a cappella, which is another point in its favor. The words do not refer to Christ’s birth, but it is still used as a Christmas hymn, and is a beautiful melody and an essential part of any Christmas collection.

Honorable mention for this list goes to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (which I almost included in place of While Shepherd Watched Their Flocks By Night), Joy to the World, and I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In. There are many others such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and The First Noel and so on. I hope you enjoyed this journey into Regency Christmas carols as much as I enjoyed researching them!

Now, let’s have some fun. What is your favorite Christmas song? Regency, before, or after, it doesn’t matter. Please reply with your favorite carol!


One final announcement I wanted to make is that my next novel has a title and will soon have a cover. As with all my novels, it’s centered around a Darcy and Elizabeth romance, and is entitled Coincidence. The premise was built around the idea that setting an entire story up on coincidence can stretch credulity, and as we all know, there were some interesting coincidences in Pride and Prejudice. The novel will be released on January 16, 2017. There will be more to follow!

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20 Responses to Christmas Carols Jane Austen Might Have Known, by Jann Rowland

  1. What a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing these beautiful hymns. I can’t pick a favorite Christmas hymn as the birth of my Savior is beyond precious to me. But any arrangement by Mannheim Steamroller is sure to please! I’m also a huge fan of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

    What is your musical background?

    • Those two groups are my favorites also. My husband and I went to see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in concert at Hershey arena about 5 years ago. It was such a wild experience with the one guitarist running up and down the aisles playing and a light show, etc. Loved it.

  2. This is so lovely that you included the links to listen to these songs. Thank you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  3. I love the old very traditional carols too, but I quite like the progressive carol, the Twelve days of Christmas, the original of which were published in 1780 as a chant (the music we know today didn’t arrive until 1909 apparently). It lends itself to a number of fun parodies, if you substitute characters from Austen’s novels and think about gifts that might be appropriate between say, Darcy and Elizabeth.

  4. My favourite Christmas music is a CD we have consisting of music by Scarlatti (Pastoral cantata for the birth or our Lord), Corelli (Christmas Cincerto) and Vivaldi (Gloria in D major). All pre-date Jane Austen, so it’s possible she may have known these pieces.

    I’m not a church goer but I grew up knowing many of the carols and hymns you mention, Jann. Thanks for a fascinating article.

  5. Hi Jann,

    Congratulations on having your next book nearly ready!

    Of the ones you listed as being available to Jane Austen, my favorite is Greensleeves. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music, be it Christmas or any other type. I even have several music boxes that play it.

    The additional ones you mentioned Jane Austen would have known that are in my ‘top picks’ I would rank (favorite to least): O Come, All Ye Faithful, The First Noel, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World, not that there’s anything to dislike about any of the others 🙂

    As for Christmas music Miss Austen wouldn’t have known, my very favorite Christmas carol is Good King Wenceslas. I also agree with you; Silent Night is one of the best.

    Thank you for such a heartwarming post.


  6. I love all the songs you mentioned, and I don’t really have a favorite. However, I have to mention a few that you didn’t list. Joy to the World is one I love because it is just so happy; no Christmas season is complete without the Hallelujah chorus and For Unto Us a Child is Born from the Messiah (the whole work is outstanding); I Wonder as I Wander is another minor key song that is haunting and introspective and I love it; Gesu Bambino is a favorite to welcome in the season; Once in Royal David’s City is another that I love. I’m afraid I could go on for hours, so I’ll just stop there. I just returned from a Christmas violin recital in which 3 of my kids played. I can’t get enough Christmas songs, particularly the hymns. Thank you for this post!

  7. My mother loves Christmas and one of my earliest memories of the holiday is her singing along to While Shepherd Watched Their Flocks By Night 🙂 Thanks for the Christmas feels haha

  8. What a delightful post. The music was wonderful and the choice of artwork was stunning. I have really enjoyed this. You may not believe this, but I purchased a new Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CD just the other day. I love their work. My favorite is any music that uplifts the Spirit and clears the heart and mind of our earthly troubles and lifts us to a place of rest and peace. I love the old and new Christian music. Thank you for this post and many blessing on the launch of your book and through the rest of the Holiday Season. Joyeux Noël

  9. Jann, in early January on my blog I have a piece on the traditional English folk song, ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at,’ which comes from the County of Yorkshire, and it is written in Yorkshire dialect. According to tradition, the words were composed by members of a Halifax church choir on an outing to Ilkley Moor near Ilkley, West Yorkshire. According to, “In 1805 a hymn tune called ‘Cranbrook’ was composed by a cobbler of Canterbury. His name was Thomas Clark. A hundred years later it was still being sung in Wesleyan Chapels to the words ‘O for a thousand tongues’ and at Christmas time to ‘While Shepherds watched their flocks by night.'” Your mention of the song pleased me greatly.
    The Victorian Trading Company has a CD entitled Jane Austen Entertains. Have you heard of it? The CD supposedly contains music recorded in her home in Hampshire from her own music library obtained from her surviving manuscripts. Flute, piano.

    • Living in Yorkshire, not that many miles from Ilkley, “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at” is a very familiar song to us, Regina. And I actually have a copy of that CD Jane Austen Entertains, that I won in a giveaway a couple of years ago. Listening to it makes you think of music in a very different way to how we mainly treat it now. In the home, we rarely sit and just listen to music do we? It’s usually something going on in the background. In earlier times, such as the Regency, music seems to have been very much a way of entertaining and passing the time in the same way that we now use TV. It’s only when we go to concerts, be they classical of popular music, that we actually sit and listen nowadays.

  10. Thank you for this educational post, and I, too, prefer the sacred Christmas/Advent music. I especially loved the Coventry with the changing art. Can’t wait to have your new book revealed!

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