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St Oswald's

The parish church of Bollington

Bollington Road, Bollington Cross, SK10 5EG
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Sing-Along Hymns

Some Christmas Carols


On this page (Scroll down to see them all):

Away in a manger
Coventry Carol
God rest you merry, gentlemen
I know a rose-tree springing
O come, all ye faithful
Shepherds tell your beauteous story
Silent night, holy night
The first Nowell
The Great God of heaven is come down to earth
While shepherds watched

Other suitable carols and hymns include:
Angels from the realms of glory
Good Christian men, rejoice
Good King Wenceslas
In the bleak midwinter
It came upon the midnight clear
Love came down at Christmas
O Jesus so sweet
O little town of Bethlehem
Once in Royal David’s city
See amid the winter’s snow
Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown
What child is this…?

I know a rose-tree springing

The German hymn Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen was first printed in the Speyer Hymnal of 1599. It was already associated with the tune. Earlier texts exist in manuscripts. It is thought that the hymn was already well-known in the time of Martin Luther, who was ordained as a priest in 1507.

It is based on Isaiah 11.1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The first verse describes a rose sprouting from the stem of the Tree of Jesse, symbolising the descent of Jesus from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The second verse of the hymns explains the meaning of this symbolism: that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the rose that has sprung up to bring forth a child, who is represented in line 4 as a small flower (“das Blümlein”).

Originally there were only these two verses. A number of other verses were written from the nineteenth century onwards. The third verse provided here is a translation of words by the German hymn-writer Friedrich Layritz (1808-1859), where the Flower symbolises Jesus.

The tune was harmonised by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), a German organist and composer, and is his best-known arrangement of a hymn tune. He was organist at the Marienkirche in Frankfurt from 1587 to 1592. He was then employed at the court of Henry Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, first as organist and later as court music director (Kapellmeister). His body was entombed in a vault beneath the organ of the Marienkirche on 23 February 1621.

I know a rose-tree springing
forth from an ancient root,
as prophets once were singing.
From Jesse came the shoot
that bore a blossom bright
amid the cold of winter,
when half-spent was the night.

This rose-tree, blossom laden,
whereof Isaiah spake,
is Mary, purest maiden,
who mothered, for our sake,
the little Child, new-born
by God’s eternal counsel
on that first Christmas morn.

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
with sweetness fills the air,
dispel in glorious splendour
the darkness everywhere;
true man, yet very God,
from sin and death now save us,
and share our every load.

Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen


Shepherds, tell your beauteous story

The words may not be familiar, but the tune Quem Pastores is very well known as it has been used for a number of other hymns. This is a 14th century Latin carol, that was published with this melody in Germany in 1555 (although tune and words may have been coupled much earlier). This translation into English by Revd John O’Connor was published in 1905. It closely follows the Latin text. (There are various more modern translations, mostly still in copyright.)

The Latin text is given below. It’s very neat how the short, polished Latin phrases can express the same sentiments using far fewer words than appear in the English version.

The identity of Revd John O’Connor is uncertain, there were many priests of that name. They include the Anglican Archdeacon of Emlyn, Tipperary (1854-1904), the Roman Catholic Bishop of Newark, New Jersey (1855-1927) and the Roman Catholic parish priest in Bradford, Yorkshire (1870-1952) who was the model for G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

Shepherds tell your beauteous story,
how the dazzling angel glory
sang to Juda’s hillsides hoary,
“Born is your Eternal King.”

Bethlehem hath now beholden
kings of tribes far-off and olden.
Incense, myrrh, and treasure golden
to her conquering Lion bring.

So with Mary’s gladness blending,
let our thankfulness ascending
scale high heaven, in sweet contending
with the angels’ glorious choir.

God with us, through Mary dwelleth!
This dear grace all praise excelleth.
Let the song such bliss that telleth
in its own great joy expire.

Quem Pastores

Quem pastores laudavere,
quibus angeli dixere
absit vobis jam timere,
natus est Rex gloriae.

Ad quem reges ambulabant,
aurem, thus, myrrham portabant.
Haec sincere immolabant
leoni victoriæ.

Exsultemus cum Maria,
in coelesti hierarchia,
natum promat voce pia,
laus honor et gloria.

Christo Regi, Deo nato,
per Mariam nobis dato,
vero corde resonato
dulci cum melodia.

O come, all ye faithful

The Latin hymn Adeste fideles originally had four verses (1, 2, 6 and 7) and is often attributed to John Francis Wade (1711-1786) who published it in 1751. However, it may have been written in the previous century. These verses were translated into English by Frederick Oakley (1802-1880). Four more verses were added in the 18th century and translated by W T Brooke (1848-1917), the verse “Child for us sinners” seems to be an amalgamation of two of the Latin stanzas. In theEnglish translation, the rather clumsy phrase “Lo,he abhors not the Virgin’s womb” is needed to match the number of syllables in the more straightforward Latin “gestant puella viscera” = “(the) Virgin’s viscera carry” – viscera meaning parts of the body within the abdomen.

The well-known tune was published with the words in Wade’s 1751 book Cantus Diversi pro Dominicis et Festis per annum (Various songs for Sundays and Festivals of the year). The composer’s name is shrouded in the mists of time but it is clear that words and music have been coupled for centuries.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of angels:
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

God of God, Light of Light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God,
Begotten, not created:
O come...

See how the Shepherds, summoned to his cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh with lowly fear;
We too will thither
Bend our joyful footsteps:
O come...

Lo! star-led chieftains, Magi, Christ adoring,
Offer him incense, gold, and myrrh;
We to the Christ Child
Bring our heart’s oblations:
O come...

Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger,
Fain we embrace thee, with awe and love;
Who would not love thee,
Loving us so dearly?
O come...

Sing, choirs of Angels, sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above;
Glory to God
In the Highest:
O come...

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born on Christmas morning,
Jesu, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing:
O come...

Adeste fideles

John Francis Wade was an English Catholic who had fled to France after the Jacobite rising of 1745 was crushed. He made a living as a copyist of musical manuscripts which he found in libraries. The words of the hymn have been interpreted as a Jacobite birth ode to Bonnie Prince Charlie. From the 1740s to 1770s the earliest forms of the carol commonly appeared in English Roman Catholic liturgical books close to prayers for the exiled Old Pretender. In the books by Wade it was often decorated with Jacobite floral imagery, as were other liturgical texts with coded Jacobite meanings. (eg Bethlehem= England).

But perhaps the suggestion that this is the original meaning of the carol is an early example of Fake News.

Away in a manger

Although it was originally claimed that it was written by Martin Luther to sing to his children, this carol is almost certainly entirely of American origin. Its first known publication was in 1882 in Chicago (when there were only the first two verses). The third verse appeared in 1892. There are many minor variations of the text.


The melody Cradle song was written by William James Kirkpatrick (1838–1921). He was born in Ireland; his parent emigrated to USA in 1840 and came back to take him there once they had established a home. He was a Methodist hymn-writer, but not many of his hymns are still popular today; one that may be familiar is Will your anchor hold in the sea of life?.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head. The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay, The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky, And stay by my side until morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay Close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.

Cradle song

The Great God of heaven is come down to earth

Also on a manger theme, This carol was written by Revd Henry Ramsden Bramley (1833-1917). He was ordained deacon 1856 and priest 1858. He was Vicar of Horspath, Oxfordshire 1861-1889 ,and Canon and Precentor of Lincoln 1895-1901.

The tune A Virgin unspotted is a traditional English Carol tune harmonised by Martin Shaw. (There is a 17th century carol of this name, but with a different tune and different metre).

The great God of heaven is come down to earth,
His mother a Virgin, and sinless his birth;
The Father eternal his Father alone:
He sleeps in the manger; he reigns on the throne:
Then let us adore him, and praise his great love:
To save us poor sinners he came from above.

A Babe on the breast of a Maiden he lies,
Yet sits with the Father on high in the skies;
Before him their faces the seraphim hide,
While Joseph stands waiting, unscared, by his side:
Then let us adore him, and praise his great love:
To save us poor sinners he came from above.

Lo! here is Emmanuel, here is the Child,
The Son that was promised to Mary so mild;
Whose power and dominion shall ever increase,
The Prince that shall rule o’er a kingdom of peace:
Then let us adore him, and praise his great love:
To save us poor sinners he came from above.

The Wonderful Counsellor, boundless in might,
The Father’s own image, the beam of his light;
Behold him now wearing the likeness of man,
Weak, helpless, and speechless, in measure a span:
Then let us adore him, and praise his great love:
To save us poor sinners he came from above.

O wonder of wonders, which none can unfold:
The Ancient of days is an hour or two old;
The Maker of all things is made of the earth,
Man is worshipped by angels, and God comes to birth:
Then let us adore him, and praise his great love:
To save us poor sinners he came from above.

A Virgin unspotted

Coventry Carol

This carol has its origin is in the 15th century pageant of the Shearmen and Tailor’s Guild at Coventry. In the Middle Ages it was customary for churches and monasteries in or near larger towns to hold pageants with plays and processions on the feast of Corpus Christi in which each of the craftsmen’s Guilds would portray different aspects of the church’s teaching. This was intended as an educational exercise at a time when most people could not read or write. The pageants were very popular and people would come in from surrounding villages to enjoy the spectacle. Most of the original plays have been lost following their suppression a decade or two after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, only two surviving from Coventry. More complete texts of Mystery Play cycles survive at York, Chester and Wakefield and are performed in modern (non-COVID) times.

It was common for the Baker’s guild to have the first float in the procession in view of the fact that the bread (Corpus Christi or Christ’s body) is the key element being celebrated on this particular feast day. Presumably it was the tools of their trade that led to the Tailors and Shearmen’s guild being chosen at Coventry to portray the Murder of the Innocents.

These Corpus Christi processions are the origin of the modern carnival processions with decorated floats, although in modern times they are more likely to be associated with Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras).

Although the plays were suppressed, some of the songs survived. The Coventry Carol was introduced to a wider modern audience in 1940, when the BBC’s "Christmas Broadcast to the Empire" concluded with a performance of it from the recently bombed out shell of Coventry Cathedral.

The earliest surviving version of the tune was published in 1591. This arrangement of the tune is by Martin Shaw (1875-1958). He was one of the co-founders of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM). You can find the setting in Carols for Choirs.

In the play, the song is sung by three women of Bethlehem, just before Herod’s soldiers come in to slaughter their children.

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
by by, lully lullay.

O sisters too,
how may we do
for to preserve this day
this poor youngling,
for whom we do sing
by by, lully lullay?

Herod the king,
in his raging,
charged he hath this day
his men of might,
in his own sight,
all young children to slay.

That woe is me,
poor child for thee!
and ever morn and day,
for thy parting
neither say nor sing
by by, lully lullay!

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
by by, lully lullay.

Coventry Carol

Silent night, holy night

Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) was was an Austrian primary school teacher, church organist and composer in the village of Arnsdorf near Salzburg. Although many of his musical compositions are used in Austrian churches, the tune Stille Nacht is by far his best known musical piece across the world.


Franz Xaver Gruber

A young priest Father Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) had come to the nearby parish of Oberndorf in 1817. He asked Gruber for help when the church organ was damaged by flooding in 1818. The priest had already written a poem Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht and Gruber obliged with a melody and guitar accompaniment. The two men performed the hymn for the first time at Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in 1818. Apparently, the organ builder who came to fix the damaged instrument was impressed by the hymn and took a copy away with him. It was performed by touring folk-singers. And then went viral (a more sedate version of viral than Facebook and the internet provide today).

There were originally six verses, but only three of them were translated into English by the Episcopalian Revd John Freeman Young (1820-1885) while he was serving at Trinity Church, New York in 1859. The hymn has been translated (by others) into about 140 different languages.

Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Saviour is born!
Christ the Saviour is born!

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!

Stille Nacht

The first Nowell

This is an ancient carol whose early origins are unknown. It may be Cornish, or it may have been French. It probably dates from the 16th or 17th century, but could even have originated in the 13th century. It was first published in England in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) published by William Sandys (1792-1874). His Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern of 1833 included God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, I Saw Three Ships, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

There are a number of varying texts, including the additional last verse shown below.

The first Nowell the angel did say
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
in fields where they lay keeping their sheep
on a cold winter’s night that was so deep:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

They lookèd up and saw a star
shining in the east, beyond them far:
and to the earth it gave great light,
and so it continued both day and night:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

And by the light of that same star
three wise men came from country far;
to seek for a king was their intent,
and to follow the star wheresoever it went:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

This star drew nigh to the north-west;
o’er Bethlehem it took its rest,
and there it did both stop and stay
right over the place where Jesus lay:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

Then entered in those wise men three
full reverently upon their knee,
and offered there in His presence,
both gold and myrrh and frankincense:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

Then let us all with one accord
sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
that hath made heaven and earth of naught,
and with his blood mankind hath bought:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

The first Nowell

If we in our time shall do well,
We shall be free from death and Hell,
For God hath prepared for us all
A resting place in general.
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
born is the King of Israel.

While shepherds watched

The well-known words are by Nahum Tate (1652-1715). He was born in Dublin and moved to London after graduating from Trinity College there. He wrote poems and also wrote for the stage; one of his tragedies was adapted as the libretto for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1692, but died in poverty at Southwark.

The words were first published in 1700 in a supplement to A New Version of the Psalms of David, that had been published by Tate and Nicholas Brady in 1696. It was the ONLY Christmas hymn that was authorised for use in the Church of England in the 18th Century; this is probably because the words closely follow the Nativity account found in Luke chapter 2 v8-14, whereas many other Christmas songs were of a secular nature.

Other hymns by Nahum Tate include As pants the hart for cooling streams and Through all the changing scenes of life.

While shepherds watched has been sung to an enormous range of tunes. A note in the English Hymnal reads “It is impossible to print all the tunes which are traditionally sung to this hymn.” There is a tradition of Christmas carol singing in pubs in the Sheffield area where many different tunes are sung (but most use the words of the first and last verse of Shepherds). Alternative tunes include the one for On Ilkeley Moor (a tune which is thought to be older than that song), Northrop (traditional Cornish tune) and Lyngham (a chapel favourite also used for O for a thousand tongues). Less traditional hymn tunes sometimes used include The Dambusters March, the Red Flag and even My Old Man’s a Dustman.

Most Hymnals include the well-known Winchester Old (as opposed to Winchester New Ride on, ride on in majesty). In this setting there are some verses in the Thomas Ravenscroft version (the melody sung by the tenors and the sopranos singing the tenor part) and a couple of descants by Alan Gray (1855-1935) and David Willcocks (1919-2015).

The tune Lloyd may be familiar to lovers of brass band music (although when played as a band piece it is often taken much more slowly). It was written by Cuthbert Howard (1856-1927) who was for many years the organist at the Wesleyan Chapel at Collyhurst, Manchester.

Pentonville is one of the many tunes sung by folk-singers and a capella singers. It requires some repition of words. It was written by William Marsh (abt 1780-1805). I know nothing more about his (short!) life.

Just one verse of Pentonville

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
all seated on the ground,
the angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around [repeated several times!].


The tune Winchester Old first appeared in Este’s Psalter of 1592. The tune has been attributed to George Kirbye (abt 1565-1634) and was probably originally used for a metrical arrangement of Psalm 23 written by Thomas Sternhold (1500-1549). He was the principal author of the first English metrical version of the Psalms, originally attached to the Prayer-Book. The first edition of Certayne Psalmes chosē out of the Psalter of Dauid and drawē into Englishē Metre included 18 of his psalms. His Psalm 23 appeared in the second edition, published (after his death) in 1562:

My shepherd is the living Lord
nothing therefore I need:
In pastures fair, with waters calm
he sets me for to feed.

He did convert and glad my soul,
and brought my mind in frame:
To walk in paths of righteousness,
for his most holy name.

Yea though I walk in vale of death
yea I will fear none ill:
The rod, thy staff doth comfort me,
and thou art with me still.

And in the presence of my foes,
my table thou shalt spread:
Thou shalt O Lord fill full my cup
and eke anoint my head.

Through all my life thy favour is,
so frankly showed to me:
That in thy house for ever more
my dwelling place shall be.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
the angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.

“Fear not,” said he (for mighty dread
had seized their troubled mind);
“glad tidings of great joy I bring
to you and all mankind.

“To you, in David’s town this day
is born of David’s line
the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord;
and this shall be the sign:

“The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
and in a manger laid.”

Thus spake the seraph; and forthwith
appeared a shining throng
of angels praising God, who thus
addressed their joyful song:

“All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace;
good will henceforth from heaven to men
begin and never cease.”


Winchester Old

God rest you merry, gentlemen

This traditional English carol from the 16th century (or earlier) is based on the nativity story as told in the Gospel of Luke 2.8-20.

In the first verse, the phrase “God rest you merry,” should be understood as “may God grant you peace and happiness”, the word “rest” meaning “keep”. And note where the comma is, the hymn is not being addressed to “merry gentlemen”!

The tune is also a traditional English melody that has been associated with the carol since at least the mid-18th century. Here the harmony for the first four verses is by Yorkshire-born Charles Herbert Kitson (1874-1944), who was organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin from 1913 to 1920. He resigned this post to return to England and joined the staff of the Royal College of Music in London. The last verse has a descant arrangement by Christopher Robinson (born 1936). He was organist at Worcester Cathedral, then Director of Music at St George’s Chapel, Windsor and then Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge until he retired in 2003.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
let nothing you dismay,
for Jesus Christ our Saviour
was born upon this day,
to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy!

From God our heavenly Father
a blessed angel came,
and unto certain shepherds
brought tidings of the same;
how that in Bethlehem was born
the Son of God by name:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy!

The shepherds at those tidings
rejoiced much in mind,
and left their flocks a-feeding
in tempest, storm, and wind;
and went to Bethlehem straightway
this blessed babe to find:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy!

But when to Bethlehem they came,
whereat this infant lay,
they found him in a manger,
where oxen feed on hay;
his mother Mary, kneeling down,
unto her Lord did pray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy!

Now to the Lord sing praises,
all you within this place,
and with true love and brotherhood
each other now embrace.
This holy tide of Christmas
all others doth efface:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy!

God rest you merry

For each hymn we have provided a set of verses together with an electronically generated sound-track. The sound track does not provide any words - just the tune.

The selection of hymns to be included was subject to certain limitations, notably the restrictions of copyright. This meant that many modern hymns were excluded, and the exclusion even applied to some updated versions of traditional hymns. Some publishers have made a few minor changes to make hymns more "inclusive" and have then claimed copyright over the revised text. So in most cases the ORIGINAL texts have been used, even though these may not be the versions that appear in modern hymnals.

In deciding what tunes to be used, this has largely been the Webmaster's personal choice. It is a mixture of familiar tunes and tunes that are not well-known, but deserve to be better known. The webmaster has included some personal favourites (and excluded some pet hates!). The soundtracks provided go with the words provided - if there are four verses, the tune is repeated four times. Where possible tunes have been provided with descants or alternative arrangements.

Wherever possible, there is an explanation of who wrote the words or tunes, the circumstances under which they were written, when (and sometimes why). Many hymns include references to verses appearing in the King James Version of the Bible; more modern translations were not then available! In some cases we have tried to explain these scriptural references or other instances where words have changed their meaning over time.

This selection of "Sing-along Songs of Praise" was originally a series of blog posts written during the COVID Lockdowns of 2020. It was intended to allow people to sing hymns in the safety and privacy of their own homes at a time when hymn-singing in church was not allowed (even if the church building was open!).

When hymns are sung as part of a church service, it is normally the case that the hymn books are set aside at the end of the hymn and the next part of the service continues. There is no time to sit and reflect on the meaning or the beauty of words and/or music. This collection allows you to take your time, to read, listen sing along, reflect, and to repeat a hymn again if you wish.



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Last modified: 18 August 2021