A Different Kind of Blog

news and things sacred and irreverent put together by opinionated people.

Tis the season for the carols, but…

Posted by 1minionsopinion on November 18, 2009

Who takes the time to look up orgins of them? Well, I did. Here’s a post I did for my own blog about Greensleeves and What Child is This:

The Christmas season is on the doorstep singing the classics so I thought it might be interesting to do a series on the origin of some of the more popular carols.

Let’s start with the reworking of the folk song, Greensleeves.

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you’ve broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.


I have been ready at your hand,
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both wagered life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.


There are a lot more lyrics about all the things he gives her but I’ll skip to the ending – he doesn’t get the girl and he apparently dies still hoping she’ll change her mind. I used to think the song was romantic. Now I think it’s just plain sad. This chick totally let him spend money on her and gave him nothing in return. And still he loved her. Courtly love is a bitch.

History is mixed with mystery for the origins of this song. It’s attributed to King Henry VIII but its style is Italian (“romanesca”) which was largely unknown in England prior to his death. And, since anonymity was common when it came to ballads it’s likely no one will ever know who first composed it. There’s some clue as to when it got noticed, however.

The song was entered as a broadside ballad in the Stationers’ Register as “A newe northern Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves” on Sept. 3, 1580. Now [sic] earlier mention of “Greensleeves” has ever been found. Henry VIII had been dead over 25 years by this this [sic] date.

Other notes on that thread suggest it had ties to a man who fell in love with a prostitute, that “certain girls” wore green on their sleeves to indicate their “career” as it were, but that’s met with some derision, like by this anonymous responder:

First time I’ve heard of it. The lowest sort of prostitutes couldn’t afford anything, they solicited in the alleys. I think that a poorly dressed woman flinging herself at you in the street screaming ‘reasonable rates’ is a better indicator than the color green, especially after dark.

The tune might have preceded the words, as well, and could have been known in Henry VIII’s time, but again, if it’s Italian… Some of them say it’s reminiscent of a jig, one says morris dance, another says it’s a good example of Italian fiddle music that was getting popular at the time and crushing traditional English violin tunes.

Shakespeare mentions it in The Merry Wives of Windsor but I haven’t come across any reference between then and 1865 when William Chatterton Dix decided the tune was nice but the words needed altering.

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

[CHORUS] This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.


At the time,

Christmas was not the celebration it is today. Neither was it a season where many openly celebrated the birth of Christ. Conservative Christian churches forbade gift-giving, decorating, or even acknowledging the day. These Puritan groups feared that if set aside as a special day, Christmas would become a day of pagan rituals more than a very serious time of worship. In this context, it was unusual for Dix to feel moved to write about Christ’s birth, since many hymn writers of the period ignored Christmas altogether.”

Good place to put a relevant quote I found recently:

Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

– H.L. Mencken

It’s sure different today, isn’t it. Now Christians freak if their holy day isn’t celebrated out loud by everybody by name. Looks like the Puritans were right to worry about the pagan influence. Those pagans were such party animals.


8 Responses to “Tis the season for the carols, but…”

  1. obama the antichrist said

    i will never say happy holidays because thats stupid pc talk. i will tell everyone have a merry christmas because thats what people decorate for and what people shop for so merry christmas it is!


  2. dorian said

    that’s right, OTA, say it like it is!

    as for greensleeves, it’s one of my first songs on guitar and i play it to this day. christmas time, the lyrics switch to ‘what child is this’. i prefer the romantic and renaissance greensleeves version.

    it’s not the first time that a certain lady’s unknown origins and identity has her relegated to a life of prostitution. mary magdalene of the old testament comes to mind.

    the puritans were right on with their prediction. it’s true, those pagans will make any excuse for a party.

    kay, i’ll be nice and good. . i want my christmas present, okay?


  3. 1minionsopinion said

    We’ve always done secular Christmas. Mom used to make nativity scenes because it’s a Christmas habit, but she’d add snow and sparkles which, if anyone’s actually read the bible, had nothing to do with that whole business. And adding three wise men into the mix – nowhere in the book does it say exactly how many men stopped in to say hey. If you can find one, give me the verse. And which books mention the wise men and which didn’t think it was necessary to highlight a token appreciation by some other faith’s mages at the time.


  4. obama the antichrist said

    it never mentioned how many people visited but the three wise men did visit jesus. but not on the day jesus was born i think….the shepards visited too…


  5. 1minionsopinion said

    Nope. Nowhere does it name 3 men as turning up to worship at the stable, or his house later.

    “We assume that there were three wise men because of the three gifts that were given: gold, incense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). However, the Bible does not say there were only three wise men. There could have been many more. Tradition says that there were three and that their names were Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but since the Bible does not say, we have no way of knowing whether the tradition is accurate.”



  6. dorian said

    aw shucks. let’s keep them in the manger scene anyway. they always looked cool. besides, i like the c. carol “we three kings”.


  7. obama the antichrist said

    o ok i see we dont know the amount of wise men but the x amount of wise men did visit jesus


  8. 1minionsopinion said

    Because I like looking this stuff up:

    “The Magi were educated in Bactria (modern Afghanistan) and sent out as missionaries. Visits from the Magi were a time of celebration. They often brought new sciences and ways of building. The Magi began at a time when Zarathustra’s people were still nomads, violently raiding villages. They taught a way of peaceful living in settled agricultural communities, in harmony with nature. The Magi could have traveled from Persia or Babylon or almost anywhere in the Middle East.

    There is some debate over whether Zoroastrian beliefs influenced Christianity – or if Jewish and Christian ideas influenced Zoroastrianism. Zarathustra’s hymns predate Christianity by hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. The story of the Three Magi may help answer this debate. The story of the Magi is NOT found in any Zoroastrian text. Zoroastrians today claim little knowledge of the Magi story.

    The story of the three Magi is only found in Matthew’s canonical gospel. Yet, the Magi story is an early Christian belief. There are ancient drawings of the Magi on the walls of the catacombs under Rome made by Christians. This story may be in Matthew’s text, written to early Jewish Christians, because of the high respect the Jews had for the Persian Magi.”


    When respect for the Jews diminished, so did the respect for Magi which is likely why people translate them as Kings now. Kings were still respectable.


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