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Book of the Month

December 2000

A Booke of Christmas Carols

London: c. 1845

Sp Coll BD20-f.17


The December book of the month is A Booke of Christmas Carols.

Edited by Joseph Cundall, this book of carols was the first of Cundall's so-called 'illuminated gift books'. It is illustrated with decorative borders which were drawn and lithographed by John Brandard; these lithographs are based upon illuminated drawings from medieval manuscripts in the British Library. Brandard (1812–63) was one of a number of artists who specialized in the art of reproductive engraving in the mid nineteenth century.

The book was printed by M. and N. Hanhart with type by Charles Whittingham at the Chiswick Press. The Chiswick Press was operated by Charles Whittingham, nephew of its founder. This press has been called by Ruari McLean, the well known author of books on printing and typography, the foremost name in Victorian book design and synonymous with good typography and printing throughout the period.


The borders in the book were copied from Harleian MS 2936 and MS 3469, Royal MS.19.C.3 and 19.C.8, the DeCroy MS, and Henry VIII's Missal, all in the British Library; also used was a Book of Hours in the possession of the publisher. The miniature paintings are from Harleian MS. 2877.

The Harley manuscripts were collected by Robert Harley (d.1724) and Edward Harley (d.1741), 1st and 2nd Earls of Oxford. These manuscripts were sold to Parliament by the Countess of Oxford and her daughter, the Duchess of Portland in 1753 and formed part of the original British Museum collection on its foundation in 1753.

The Royal manuscripts were collected by English sovereigns from Edward IV onwards and were transferred to the British Museum by George II in 1757.

Included in this selection of carols are Whilst Shepherds Watch'dHark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest You Merry Gentlemen.


The derivation of the word 'carol' has been the subject of much speculation. It probably goes back through the old French 'caroler' and the Latin 'choraula' to the Greek 'choros', a circling dance often accompanied by singing and associated with dramatic performances, religious festivities and fertility rites. The carol of classical times was a major element in popular celebrations to mark the passing of the winter solstice and the promise of spring. The coming of Christianity may well have increased the carol's pagan connotations with its lively dance rhythms providing a marked contrast to the restrained and measured chants of the new religions.

It was almost certainly through the Franciscans that Christmas carols came to the British Isles. The earliest extant English Christmas carol, A child is boren amonges man, is found in a set of sermon notes written by a Franciscan friar before 1350. Collections of poems produced by friars in Kildare around the same time and in Scotland in 1372 contain lullabies to the infant Jesus.

By the Sixteenth Century, carols had become extremely popular. It was during this century that the first versions of many of today's carols were written. However, during the civil wars in the seventeenth century, a 'Cultural Revolution' occurred in England. The Puritan English Parliament of 1647 officially abolished Christmas and all other festivals; it was not until the Restoration that Christmas became legal again. It would be another 150 years before any new carols would be published in England.


Joseph Cundall of London is also said to have published the first Christmas cards in 1846. Less than 1000 were sold that year, but nearly a decade later, it had become a tradition.


Other books of carols: Christmas carols, ancient and modern; including the most popular in the West of England, and the airs to which they are sung. Also specimens of French provincial carols. With an introduction and notes London: 1833 Sp Coll BD20-f.16; Christmas carols new and old. The words edited by Henry Ramsden Bramley. The music edited by Sir John Stainer London: [1871?]. Sp Coll 1305; Christmas with the poets: a collection of songs, carols, and descriptive verses, relating to the festival of Christmas, from the Anglo-Norman period to the present time. Embellished with tinted illustrations by Birket Foster, and with initial letters and other ornaments London: 1852 Sp Coll BD20-b.24; Joshua Sylvester A garland of Christmas carols, ancient and modern. Including some never before given in any collection London: 1816 Sp Coll BG60-m.1

Of related interest: British Museum, Department of Manuscripts A catalogue of the Harleian collection of manuscripts... preserved in the British Museum... [By Humphrey Wanley and others] London: 1759 Sp Coll Hunterian R.1.10-1; Typographers on type : an illustrated anthology from William Morris to the present day Edited by Ruari McLean  London: 1995. Bibliog B50:5 1995 M


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Claire McKendrick December 2000