Carolling and hunting are two ancient and intertwined traditions of Christmas that are worth preserving, says Janet Menzies
Where would Christmas be without hunting? Bing Crosby dreamt of a white Christmas with every Christmas card he wrote. When that card shows the traditional scene of the hunt on the village green or in the market square on Boxing Day, then so much the more Christmassy. And along with the cards come the carols, with all their ancient hunting associations. We sing of the boar’s head or the running of the deer and know that Advent is in full swing.
Hunts and carolling
Whether it’s a fell pack with a tradition of singing at hunt get-togethers, or a grand shire gathering at the Master’s stately home, hunts enjoy their carolling as much as the other seasonal rituals – fancy dress hunting on Christmas Eve and thanking the hunt staff on Boxing Day. (Read more on Christmas hunt boxes here.) “To me carol singing at the kennels means Christmas has really started,” says Sally Laurie-Bentall, who hunts with various south-west packs. Not every hunt is brave enough to hold their carolling at the kennels. Even as the first line of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen strikes up, hounds join in and the rest of the verse is lost in the canine chorus of “whooo, whooo, whooo”. Sometimes this is actually a good thing, to cover the confusion of the male field’s plaintive bleating when asked to carry Silent Night without female assistance. But according to Laurie-Bentall, the whole occasion ends up being a satisfying cacophony: “I particularly enjoy it by the time we get to The Twelve Days of Christmas, which is always fun and gets rowdier and rowdier with each verse,” she says.
This is all exactly as it should be, and has been for at least 400 or 500 years, right back to the Middle Ages, when carols and hunting in groups with hounds got started more or less at the same time. Many of our favourite carols are known by the name of the place where the carol collectors first discovered them being sung. The Sans Day Carol, an early version of The Holly and the Ivy, should by rights be known as The St Day Carol as this Cornish village is its home. Another locally rooted carol is The Gloucestershire Wassail, which dates back to medieval times. The carollers sing: “Wassail! Wassail! All over the town, Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown; Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree; With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee. Here’s to our horse, and to his right ear, God send our master a happy new year.” The verses go on to mention local characters and their animals by name: “Here is to Cherry and to his right cheek… Here’s to our mare, and to her right eye… Here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn… And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear/Pray God send our master a happy New Year.”
It’s an in-joke that has long outlasted the forgotten dairy men and landowners at whose expense it was made, yet it feels just the same as hunt carol singing today. Charlotte Patterson of the Mendip Farmers Hunt, says: “It’s an important tradition for us to get together in the stable barn at the kennels just before Christmas to have a singalong and possibly a small glass of mulled wine.” Collectors of folk culture agree that these local get-togethers are vital to continue the singing of ancient carols and verses. While Cornwall is well known for its St Day Carol, the Peak District areas also maintain the group singing tradition, with Castleton at its heart. Many of the carols were sung by lead miners many years ago, and the Castleton Carollers are determined to keep them alive.
This is where hunting, with its own love of social evenings, joins in the tradition. Annie Cairns, who has written The Little Book of Hunting Songs and Christmas Carols for the Hunt Staff Benefit Society (HSBS), explains: “The northern tradition of social singing plays an important role in the fells. This inspired me to add hunting songs to our annual Christmas Carol Evening with the Old Surrey, Burstow and West Kent Hunt. We had two great voices – Richard Standring led the singing and Terry Fox, the old West Kent terrierman, sang The Terrier Song. I printed all the words with illustrations so everyone could join in the singing. The song sheets were so popular that they were all taken home afterwards. The evening was an instant hit and eventually prompted me to make it into a book.”
This wasn’t straightforward for Cairns: “These songs have never been written down with the music. I wanted to record them and their origins. It was difficult to get the music written down, as they were traditionally sung in pubs, so I asked a friend’s nephew, who happened to be a leading composer, to help. He couldn’t believe they hadn’t been written down before.
“He had to listen to people singing down the phone, on YouTube and old gramophone recordings, but he got it done.” Before starting out on the project, Cairns spoke to Barry Todhunter, huntsman of the Blencathra Hounds in Cumbria: “I wasn’t prepared to go ahead without fell pack approval and help. As it was to raise funds for the HSBS, he agreed.”
Carols in the kennels
Hunt carol singing is flourishing all over the country. The Quorn have theirs at a local church along with hunting readings – a hunting version of the Festival of Nine Lessons. The Cottesmore have their carols at the kennels. At the Belvoir, the Reverend Paul Towns, vicar of St Mary the Virgin Church, Harby, is a Belvoir subscriber who helps carry on the tradition. “We conduct carol singing annually in the kennels on a Sunday in December each year,” he says, “and we take the opportunity to combine this with the blessing of the hounds.”
At the Avon Vale the singing has the potential to be quite tuneful, as chairman Andrew Edwards explains: “Our hunt carols are usually held in one of the bigger houses in the hunt country, with mulled wine and beer to wash down the mince pies.” It feels right that so many Christmas carols include hunting – mainly deer and boar – as an inescapable part of the winter scene. One of the earliest Christmas carols, called A Carol of Hunting, is about deer hunting. Could this carol have been about the New Forest, where William the Conqueror established his own heavily regulated deer forest in 1079? If so it would be the perfect carol for the New Forest Hounds to sing at their first Christmas as a bloodhound pack hunting the clean boot. The New Forest Hounds were founded in 1791 as a foxhunt, but switched to trail hunting after the Hunting Act 2004. Then Forestry England suspended the licence to trail hunt over the New Forest, leaving the hunt in danger of extinction. Now the Masters and Forestry England have been able to work together on a trial basis to let the hunt start its first ever season hunting human quarry.
Joint Master Tom Blachford reports that the first half of the season has been a massive success. And the new style of hunting, with its medieval-looking bloodhounds and runners decked out in forest green bibs, is already beginning to create its own new traditions. Blachford says: “When our licence was withdrawn, as a hunt we have had to start again, with new hounds, a new governing body and a whole new way of sport. Forestry England has allowed us to do this, and we are keen to keep going forwards, with its valued support. Soon we will be having our first Christmas clean boot hunts. We hadn’t thought of holding a Christmas carol evening so far, but now’s a good time for starting up new traditions.”
Cairns agrees: “It’s so important to preserve these traditions and keep them going. I don’t want these old songs and carols to get lost. The whole idea of the book is for people to pick it up and have a go with their own hunts. That’s why I included the music as well as the words.” Carolling and forms of hunting are two ancient and intertwined traditions of Christmas that are worth preserving – all our festivities would be poorer (and quieter) without them.
1. The Holly and the Ivy / Sans Day Carol (St Day Carol)
The iconic celebration of a winter feast with its references to the running of the deer. Villagers in Cornwall’s St Day are protective of its sister carol, which they believe goes back centuries, although only collected in the 20th century.
2. Good King Wenceslas
Taking place on Boxing Day, this carol from 1853 has come to sum up the way a whole community joins together to support as well as celebrate at Christmas time.
3. The Boar’s Head Carol
Christmas and boar-hunting have always gone together. In the late 14th century, the winter tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight revolves around a deer and boar hunt. Also dating from the Middle Ages, The Boar’s Head Carol describes the traditional Christmas Boar’s Head Feast held at Queen’s College, Oxford, since 1340.
4. God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen
Although this carol has come to epitomise the Victorian Christmas as created by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, its earliest version appears in a manuscript dating from the 1650s. With its thumping chorus, it is a great favourite for hunt carols.
5. Deck the Halls
A fairly recent carol from the 19th century, though with a much older melody, this is popular with American hunts in West Virginia.
6. The Sussex Carol
Originally published by Bishop Wadding in his Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs in 1684, the version giving the carol its name was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Harriet Verrall of Horsham, Sussex, in 1919.
7. A Carol of Hunting
Printed by early Fleet Street newsman Wynkyn de Worde, in Christmasse Carolles Newly Enprinted (London in the fletestrete at the sygne of the sonne, 1521) and then collected by Edith Rickert in Ancient English Christmas Carols: 1400-1700 (London, Chatto & Windus, 1914), this very early carol tells a tale of deer hunting.
8. The Gloucestershire Wassail
Though first published in the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928, the comical story of local farmers probably dates back to the Middle Ages.
9. Come listen awhile
Collected by Annie Cairns in The Little Book of Hunting Songs and Christmas Carols, this isn’t strictly a carol but documents the oldest recorded foxhunt, the Charlton Hunt, begun by the Duke of Monmouth in 1675. Still sung today at the Charlton Hunt Club dinner.
10. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
A favourite carol everywhere for everyone – hunts included.