Hark! English Heritage Reveals Christmas Carols are Being Sung to the Wrong Tune

  • The tunes for today’s favourite carols were changed
  • Most ‘carols’ aren’t really carols at all
  • Carols aren’t just for Christmas: they were meant to be sung all year round and danced to

Step back Mariah Carey and make way Wham!; traditional Christmas carols have endured the test of time in celebrating the festive season, but not as we know them. In fact many of these historic songs were actually sung to very different tunes, English Heritage has revealed today (12 December). The charity has set out the many misconceptions about this historic tradition, and why most of what you think you know about carols is probably wrong!

From Away in a Manger and O Little Town of Bethlehem, to While Shepherds Watched, many Christmas carols can trace their origins back hundreds of years, some to the Middle Ages, and without being written down the tunes of these songs certainly changed along the way. While most surviving medieval carols had no fixed tune at all, they’ve either been lost to history or the merry revellers made them up as they went along, others such as the classic While Shepherds Watched were sung to a different tune entirely. Today, the carol is universally sung to a 16th-century tune known as Winchester Old, but in the 18th-century, it had a bewildering number of musical settings, and in some parts of northern England, especially Yorkshire, it was sung to the score now associated with the song On Ilkley Moor.

Dr Michael Carter, English Heritage’s Senior Properties Historian, said: “As a big fan of Christmas who enjoys nothing more than belting out a carol, I feel a little churlish pointing out that Christmas carols having fixed melodies is a modern innovation. In actual fact only a fraction of medieval Christmas carols retain their original score, and it’s entirely possible that in many instances these were never composed at all! Instead, many tunes were simply made up on the spot. In perhaps happier news, we might also think of carols today as solemn and reflective, but the first carols were actually written to be danced to and would have been a rather jolly affair. While this is a practice I personally hope we revive, it’s worth remembering that carols are a living tradition, evolving through the centuries, and should be celebrated in all forms, especially at Christmas.”

English Heritage’s Christmas Carol Misconceptions


  • You might not be singing the original tune — if it ever existed!: Many of our beloved carols actually started out with very different tunes. For example, While Shepherds Watched, which was often sung to the tune we know recognise as On Ilkley Moor. Meanwhile, Hark the Herald Angels Sing wasn’t sung to the tune we know today until the composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote it in 1840, and the harmony was only added in the 1960s.


  • Carols are meant to be danced to: Carols originally were not just a song but were also accompanied by a dance – the origin of the word is the French 'carole', a sung round dance. Many of the earliest carols were actually written by medieval monks and were ring dances where everybody linked hands in a circle and sang the song whilst dancing. The anonymous 15th-century carol Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex Eva! is a catchy example of a toe-tapping ring dance.


  • Carols aren’t just for Christmas: Carols are songs that can be on any subject and are defined by their structure, not their subject matter, which contained alternating verses (V) with a refrain (R) in the pattern R, V1, R, V2, R, V3, R. They didn’t necessarily have to be about Christmas; there exists a medieval manuscript from Battle Abbey in East Sussex which contains a carol about the life of Christ, and some other carols were actually rather bawdy! Carols do, however, have a very old association with Christmas and about half of all the carols to survive from medieval England have Christmas as their subject. Today we call any Christmas religious song a carol.


  • Carols were not originally sung in churches: Instead they were sung in more worldly spaces, such as alehouses, door-to-door and while enjoying Christmas hospitality in the hall of a great household! Although often religious in content, carols were not part fully integrated into church services until the late Victorian era.


  • We sing carols at the wrong time: Christmas carols would have been sung during the 12 days of Christmas – from Christmas Eve until the Epiphany, 6 January - not in the weeks before Christmas as we do today. But Advent, the period before Christmas, had its own carols, too!


  • Carols are a living tradition: The world-famous Christmas Eve service from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, first held in 1918, has been broadcast by the BBC since 1928 and its programme now often includes compositions of new carols.


Those wanting to listen to these medieval carols being sung in their original tunes should visit the English Heritage website where they can also learn more about their fascinating histories:

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