Mark Lawson-Jones on Christmas Carols
Date: December 24th, 2017

Christmas carols are a traditional part of the holiday season in many parts of the world.  Despite singing our favorite carols year-in-and-year-out, how much do we really know about where they came from and what they mean?  Moreover, why did we ever begin singing about a partridge in a pear tree, particularly when partridges are not know to be all that airborne?  How did that bird get up there?!  To uncover these mysteries, Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones, a chaplain for Mission to the Seafarers and former regional official in the Church in Wales, talks about his book Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree? The History of Christmas Carols.  In addition to selling Tony on the wonder of Wales, Rev. Lawson-Jones discusses how he came to write this book.  Mark has always loved Christmas caroling and leads several dozen services a year that feature these seasonal songs, and it was fortuitous one year that he was approached by a book editor to write a short history on carols.  We talk about the deep history of caroling, how various songs were used during pageants during the Middle Ages and how St. Bonaventure is thought to have penned one of the oldest carols, “Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful),” which Mark reveals has an interesting “call to arms” behind its meaning.  We discuss other features of carols, including the strong Christmas association with holly and ivy, how many festivals in the Middle Ages were overlays on the Saturnalia celebrations of the Roman Empire, and how rural residents would bang on trees and pots and pans to wake their orchard up in the darkest nights of winter so that they would have a bountiful harvest in the coming year.  Wassailing is also discussed, both as a festive celebration of singing about town as well as a creating an alcoholic brew carried around in large bowls that usually accompanied these celebrations.  The specific Welsh celebration of Mari Lwyd, and how revelers will boisterously come up to houses and be invited in or chased away all in song, is also discussed.  Mark shares some of his tales of caroling in pubs, a practice that he notes is essential for building community.  The conversation then takes a dark turn as we learn how the Puritans almost killed off Christmas celebrations in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but fortunately the tradition of joyous singing survived into what Mark calls the “Golden Age of Carols” (circa 19th century).  It is in this period, spurred on by the Victorian culture of rejoicing in family, that some of the best known hymns we still sing to this day were written.  At this point, we review the history of several well-known carols including:  The Coventry Carol, The Holly and the Ivy, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, O Come All Ye Faithful, Silent Night, and Good King Wenceslas (one of Tony’s favorite even if he cannot easily pronounce the king’s name).  We conclude this review with The Twelve Days of Christmas and Mark answers the eternal philosophical question about that bird in that fruit tree.  He also reveals that this song appears to have originated in a children’s book as a memory game that parents played with their kids.  What does this have to do with Mark making breakfast for his children?  Well, he tells you that too!  We finish with some thoughts on the importance that caroling has in reminding us of difficult times, as well as the joys of the season, and how singing in groups builds strong communities.  Mark also shares some of his own thoughts on what he has learned through his study, and singing, of carols.  Recorded: December 12, 2017.

Note: Rev. Lawson-Jones didn’t get an opportunity to talk about one of his favorite carols — In the Bleak Midwinter — which was one of the earliest carols written by a woman, Christina Georgina Rossetti, who he pointed out should have been a poet laureate if not for her gender back in less enlightened times.


Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree? The History of Christmas Carols, by Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones.

The Little Book of Wales, by Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones.

Mission to the Seafarers (where Rev. Lawson-Jones serves as a chaplain).

The Church in Wales.

A traditional recipe (one of many!) for wassail and wassail recipes.


The Research on Religion Christmas Series (including episodes on St. Nicholas, It’s A Wonderful Life, a Christmas Carol, and Krampus).

Robert Coote on the 27 Most Popular Hymns and Amazing Grace.

Ryan Habig on Music Ministry and “With Us.”

Jim Houser on the Christian Music Industry.

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